Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Alleged security concerns nearly prompted the Montana Department of Revenue to leave Missoula off its list of in-person meetings planned across the state this month to discuss property appraisals and how, exactly, agency staff determined the values that recently arrived in mailboxes.

That was according to elected officials who in various settings over the past two days have told the Missoula Current that DOR had no plans to discuss recent appraisals in Missoula and the process it used to create them in the latest cycle.

Of the 60 scheduled meetings, the agency is hosting two in Joliet, two in Big Timber, two in Havre and two in Roundup, among other small communities. That left local officials scratching their heads as to why Missoula, the state's second largest city, was left off the agency's list of meetings.

“They're doing these town halls all across the state. They originally didn't have one scheduled at all here in Missoula,” said City Council member Stacie Anderson. “And they won't be advertising it because they know there will be a room full of people with some very legitimate concerns, grievances and questions. ”

Several local officials had heard that staff with the Montana Department of Revenue had expressed concerns over security in Missoula, prompting the agency to bypass the city on its meeting tour.

An agency official on Tuesday confirmed that staff had security concerns.

“In Speaking with Property's Administrator Kory Hoffland, our Missoula staff did have safety concerns,” Jason Slead, the revenue department's communications director, told the Missoula Current. “They received threats and angry correspondence.”

Slead didn't detail the threats or correspondence, or if similar issues had surfaced in other cities.

Concerns over increases, confusion

Appraisals sent out late last month saw the state increase the appraised value of homes in Missoula and other cities by tens of thousands of dollars each, and more in some cases. The agency actually warned the Legislature that the increases were coming, though the Legislature didn't heed the warnings.

Some home values increased by more than 40% or more as a result of the state's latest appraisal. While that has frustrated property taxpayers, it also has left elected officials concerned.

“There's a huge misunderstanding that with this huge valuation, we're going to get a lot more money. That's not the case,” Anderson said of the City of Missoula. “We're capped at how much we can levy. The state is not. Despite sitting on a $2.5 billion surplus, they're increasing their share of what they're raking in in property taxes somewhere around $80 million a year.”

The latest appraisal process has become a political hot potato. The Gianforte administration has promoted its tax rebates – up to $650 for qualified properties – as giving money back to deserving taxpayers.

But former Gov. Brian Schweitzer has countered that claim, saying the Legislature and current governor has spent “more new money than any Legislature in history.”

“They blew off the Revenue Department's warning and did nothing to mitigate the oncoming rising property tax. Now, Republican leadership is trying to spin their blunder. They claim it's the county commissioners and cities who are raising your taxes. False!”

Anderson agreed, saying cities are capped by the state on how much they can levy. The open house with DOR, now scheduled in person on Wednesday in Missoula, gives local taxpayers a chance to get to the bottom of the significant increases they've realized in property values.

“This is a great opportunity for folks to show up, ask questions and get answers,” Anderson said. “There's a lot of misinformation going around and rightfully, a lot of frustration.”

When asked why DOR had initially left Missoula off the list of cities and towns it planned to visit to discuss the issue, Slead said security emerged as a concern. Instead of an in-person session, he said the agency had opted for an online presentation.

“We opted for a Zoom only presentation to start out with. When Missoula’s legislators asked (Hoffland) if they could have a live presentation, we agreed and scheduled the meetings. We even organized another live location in Condon,” Slead said.

Local officials and members of the city's legislative delegation said they pushed to get DOR to add an event in Missoula. They weren't buying the agency's concerns over security.

“It was a team effort. It was everyone together,” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “You'll have to bring it up with them (DOR), what indeed they were afraid of.”

The event with the Montana Department of Revenue is now scheduled in Missoula from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. the Hilton Garden Inn on North Reserve Street.