Flathead’s budget hole 

Flathead County stuck its hands in its pockets this year and came up empty, again.

While the Flathead Valley fattens up on fast-paced growth, the county government has gone into the red, with a $6.7 million deficit in its last budget that forced the county to spend some of its reserves. The preliminary 2006 budget forecasts a similar scenario next year.

Funding shortfalls have forced the county to cut corners in a number of places, including its jail (so overcrowded that people arrested on warrants are set free for lack of space), its roads (all roads in new subdivisions are private, as the county cannot afford to maintain new ones), and its ability to plan for future growth.

The problem has gotten so bad that the county literally doesn’t know where to begin. It has no capitol improvements plan telling it which buildings are priorities for expansion or repair. It has no transportation plan to tell it which of its 500 unpaved roads needs paving first, no county-wide water, sewer and storm drainage plan telling it where to extend services, or where to prepare for floods.

Growth itself is partly to blame. The county planning office currently takes in $300,000 per year in subdivision review fees, but spends $539,000 to process them. But, according to new county administrator Michael Pence, the amount of employees the county has had to hire over the years to deal with population increases has been the chief drain on finances.

There are several remedies to Flathead county’s financial malaise. Raising fees for subdivision reviews is one of the obvious, and Pence says he and county planning director Jeff Harris are already working on that part of the solution.

Another would be to raise the property tax levy. State law allows the county three more mills in taxes, about $430,000 annually. Flathead County commissioners chose not to raise that amount last year, but they still could this year.

This year the state Legislature also gave counties the option of imposing impact fees on new developments. In a recent letter to the editor, County Commissioner Gary Hall said he would consider impact fees, and goes on to say: “The citizens of Flathead County cannot continue to subsidize those who demand services on the public dollar… It’s just too big for the tax base.”

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