Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Protest notwithstanding, new county property tax bills are coming

The Western News | February 6, 2024 7:00 AM

Gov. Greg Gianforte won his battle with the state’s counties over how much property tax must be collected and now the land owners get to pony up more money.

Lincoln County property owners should see the new tax bill in their mail box at the end of March or early April.

The bill is the result of 49 Montana counties losing a battle with the state over how many mills it could levy.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled on Nov. 22, 2023, that counties must levy the full 95 mills, the amount calculated by the state for schools. 

Forty-nine county commissions, out of 56, decided to levy less due to concerns over high property taxes across the state. But those counties, including Lincoln, now have to send new invoices.

County Treasurer Sedaris Carlberg said it will cost about $10,000 for the new bills.

“Typically we send a reminder notice in May, which is required, but we won’t do it this year. I’m hoping it’ll kind of balance out,” Carlberg said.

She also said the work for the new notices is outsourced, making it cheaper.

The new tax bill will show an adjustment in second half payments, according to the Montana Association of Counties. MACO serves member counties with education and assistance to them and their personnel.

Commissioners Josh Letcher, Brent Teske and Jim Hammons voted to approve the new bill under protest.

“The budget is fully funded without us raising taxes,” Letcher said. “I think the governor is getting bad advice on this. I think this extra money fills the pot for what the governor wants to do.”

At the Jan. 3 meeting, Teske said, “I don’t approve of us having to do this and I want it noted that we are doing this under protest. I’m not comfortable with any of this. This is the state being greedy.”

In a Dec. 21 letter to its member counties, MACO, “strongly encouraged county commissions to include a statement with the adjusted second half tax bills.

“It is important to let your taxpayers know that the current mill levy limitation is 77.9 mills, but that the state of Montana is directly asking counties to levy more than the current limit in order to maximize revenue from property tax collections this year.”

“It’s not gonna be fun to do this, but I believe it’s the lesser of two evils,” Carlberg at the Jan. 3 meeting. 

A letter of explanation will accompany the thousands of new tax bills. It includes a toll free phone number for the governor’s office, which is 1-855-318-1330.

“I encourage folks to call the governor’s office and express their feelings,” Teske said.

State Democratic lawmakers wanted a special session for a proposed bill that could’ve brought down estimated property taxes. But the session never happened.

State Sen. Mike Cuffe (R-Eureka) wrote in a column that, “All legislators and Gov. Gianforte have this as a top priority for next session. The solution is not a quick “band aid and go thing,” we need a good long term solution. Our governor has a solid and broad based commission working on this. I look forward to wrapping up my final 2025 Session with a good and fair property tax.”

The state did offer property tax rebates of up to $675 for 2023 and 2024. 

According to reporting in the Montana Free Press, about 75% of eligible homeowners applied to the state Department of Revenue for the rebate. The department estimated 292,200 households were eligible.

When the county commissioners decided to join dozens of other counties in October challenging the state’s assertion that 95 mills must be levied, the general consensus was that levying 77.9 mills was the better option at the time.

Teske said then, “Are we going to overtax just because the state wants more money? I’d rather fight with the state than burden our taxpayers.”

At a meeting in October, county Attorney Marcia Boris questioned what would happen if a future court ruling goes against the county.

“The big concern is where does the money come from if we get an unfavorable ruling?” Boris said at the time. “But if we just have to send another bill to taxpayers that alleviates that concern.”

In the state Supreme Court’s November ruling, it held that the state Department of Revenue, “may continue to determine statewide mills by carrying forward any mills exceeding the cap in one year, and then require counties to apply those mills to reach the cap in subsequent years. DOR’s interpretation of its taxation authority is consistent with the Montana Constitution and the Legislature’s directive to equalize funds for public education across Montana.

“It is further ordered that the counties shall levy statewide mills pursuant to DOR’s calculations for the current and future tax years.”

Property tax rates are based on mills. Each mill equates to $1 which is levied per $1,000 of a property’s taxable value. When a property’s value increases the amount of tax revenue from the property also increases due to the mill rate increase.

County Superintendent of Schools Suzy Rios said in October that there was no concern from area schools over the funding.