Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) While the governor's new task force on property taxes will include commissioners from several Montana counties, the invite wasn't sent to Missoula County, even after it volunteered one of its own to the group.

Gov. Greg Gianforte last week announced the members of the task force, which he formed to draft recommendations on how to reform state property taxes and reduce the tax burden on property owners.

The group will include Sen. Shane Morigeau, a Missoula Democrat who serves on the Senate Finance and Claims Committee, and Missoula City Council member Sandra Vasecka, one of the council's most strident fiscal conservatives.

Vasecka said she was thrilled to be appointed to the governor's tax group.

“I plan to continue to advocate for responsible and less spending of taxpayer dollars,” she told the Missoula Current. “I've never been shy of sharing ideas that go against the flow of my colleagues in Missoula, so I believe that my position on the task force will continue a robust conversation with attainable and reasonable ideas to keep Montanans in their homes.”

Council member Sandra Vasecka
Council member Sandra Vasecka

Many homeowners across Montana saw steep increase in their property taxes last year after the state pushed up the value of homes during its two-year appraisal process. Some state estimates placed the average valuation increase at 45%, meaning some homes increased in value overnight by as much as $100,000 or more.

The Legislature was advised that the increase was coming but failed to drop the residential tax rate. Instead, the Legislature awarded homeowners rebates of up $675 last year and again this year. Gianforte said he wants his task force to drum up reforms before the next Legislature.

“Our $1,350 property tax rebate helped Montana homeowners last year and will help them again this year,” Gianforte said in the release. “We, however, need thoughtful, deliberate, long-term reforms to keep property taxes as low as possible, because the increasing strain of rising property taxes shouldn’t force Montana homeowners to consider selling the home they’ve owned and lived in for decades.”

Rising property taxes have become political focal points in recent years, culminating last year when nearly all Montana counties moved to levy just 77 school equalization mills despite the state's insistence that they levy all 95 mills.

The issue also prompted the state to sue Missoula County over its levying of school equalization mills. Gianforte argued that some cities and counties have failed to practice fiscal responsibility when managing their budgets – an issue he attributed in part to rising property taxes.

But Missoula County took issue with the governor's claims, saying the state's tax system was fundamental broken and has, in recent decades, shifted the tax burden away from corporations to residential property taxpayers, all while limiting the ways cities and counties can generate revenue.

Hoping to have a seat at the table to address the problem, Missoula County sent a letter in December to the governor nominating Commissioner Josh Slotnick to the property tax task force, saying he had the knowledge to help fix the system.

Among other things, the county promoted Slotnick's work to spearhead the passage of a local option gas tax in Missoula County in 2019, which was later revoked by the state.

Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick.
Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick.

But Slotnick wasn't named to the governor's property tax task force. While he couldn't be reached for comment in time for this story, Slotnick has made tax reform a central piece of his reelection efforts.

“This year we kept our tax increase of the county as a whole to below the level of inflation,” Slotnick said in a statement announcing his campaign for reelection. “Yet people’s individual property taxes soared. That’s because the equation at the core of the Montana property tax system crushes homeowners and renters, and this must change.”

Slotnick said counties across the state “now feel this problem acutely” and added that the “appetite for fixing the system has never been greater.”

The task force will hold its first meeting in February and will have its recommendations finalized by mid-summer. The next Legislature convenes in Jan. 2025.