Nicole Girten

(Daily Montanan) The State of Montana says it won’t be able to properly fund public education if Missoula County won’t collect enough money in property taxes.

In a complaint filed Monday in Missoula County District Court, the state said Missoula County told the Department of Revenue it would be levying fewer school mills than the state believes it should — 77.89 instead of 95 mills.

Mills are tax rates applied to assessed values of property. One mill would mean a taxpayer would owe $1 for every $1,000 of a property’s assessed value.

The state is looking to have a judge declare how many mills the state is required to levy for school equalization, according to the lawsuit.

School equalization means every tax jurisdiction ensures equal access to quality education for students, no matter if it has a high population or is more rural, as required by the state’s constitution.

“The County’s interpretation interferes with the State’s constitutional obligation to ‘fund and distribute in an equitable manner to the school districts the state’s share of the cost of the basic elementary and secondary school system,’” the state said.

At least four counties including Missoula said they intended to levy school mills fewer than the 95 mills, according to the complaint and in reporting by the Montana Free Press.

Sparks continue to fly over blame for high residential property tax increases – reappraisals jumped an average 46% in Montana.

This lawsuit comes after Richland County followed Beaverhead County in requesting an opinion from the Attorney General on the 95 mills, and the protest continued at a rally at the Capitol on Monday.

In a phone call, Beaverhead County Commissioner Mike McGinley said Attorney General Austin Knudsen declined to comment on the request for an opinion, saying there was likely to be litigation on the subject.

McGinley said counties are interpreting state law to mean they should adjust the number of mills they’re levying to be lower and result in 77.89 mills, rather than 95 mills. He also asked why if the state had a more than $2 billion surplus they were wanting to raise property taxes.

Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, speaks at a rally protesting property taxes on Monday Oct. 2, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)
Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, speaks at a rally protesting property taxes on Monday Oct. 2, 2023. (Photo by Nicole Girten/Daily Montanan)

At the Capitol, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer stood at a podium with a prop bag of money before a crowd of more than 120 people. The crowd had rallied at the Montana state capitol to protest residential property tax increases.

Schweitzer, a Democrat, critiqued the Republican supermajority’s tax cuts that he said only benefited the wealthy while there was a historic budget surplus.

“Why did you raise taxes on anybody if you had so much money to be given away?” Schweitzer told the Daily Montanan.

The rally, organized by Big Sky 55+, in part pushed for people to register to vote and vote out legislators who don’t support fair taxes.

Republicans said they’ve given the money from the tax surplus back to taxpayers, in part in the form of a rebate. Up until Monday’s deadline, property owners could apply for up to $675 per year for two years.

Senate Majority Leader Steve Fitzpatrick said in a statement Monday that he filed a public records request to see how many Democrats applied for the rebate.

Sen. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, said she proudly applied for the rebate. She said she had to help constituents who couldn’t navigate the website to get their rebates as well.

Republicans have also said the final tax bill will be determined by local municipalities, which have turned around and said their hands are tied by the state. Schweitzer has called for a special session to adjust the homeowner rate.

“Nearly every legislature that’s come into the last 40 years, they look at those appraisals and they say ‘oh, look at that, the price of a house has gone up around here. We’re going to have to do a multiplier so that we don’t raise taxes on homeowners. We wouldn’t want to do that,’” he said. “That’s what we did for 40 years.”

“If you don’t use a multiplier, homeowners are going to pay higher taxes,” he said.

Fitzpatrick previously told the Daily Montanan a special session was a non-starter.

Tully Olsen, of Big Sky 55+, said it was telling there was such a crowd on a Monday afternoon at the capitol.

“Folks are pretty outraged at the current shifts going on in Montana as property taxes, whether you’re a senior living on a fixed income, or you’re just buying your first home, and this is the first cycle that you’re ever going to have to pay property taxes,” Olsen said. “And it’s not fair.”