When the levies break 

Bitterrooters to face tough choices on new taxes

Blame it on terrorism and the expensive war it spawned. Blame it on the Lewis and Clark bicentennial celebration or the unsolved Florence homicides. Blame it on a Legislature more interested in cutting taxes than funding education. Whatever the causes, landowners in Ravalli County, and especially in Hamilton, are being asked to shoulder more of the financial burden of educating children and protecting the populace from homegrown evil-doers.

This spring Bitterroot Valley voters face a stunning array of local tax levies that, if approved, would essentially raise the same amount of money for education and police protection that is being cut by state and federal government. If rejected, officials warn that major cuts in vital services will follow.

Perhaps the most unexpected tax levy, and undoubtedly the most controversial, is Ravalli County’s public safety levy. In what appears to be an 11th-hour effort to find enough money to fund the county sheriff’s department, Ravalli County commissioners decided to place on the June 4 primary ballot a 15-mill levy that would raise $765,000 for the sheriff’s office, which is currently funded out of the county’s general fund.

County officials fear the Sept. 11 attacks may result in a transfer of federal funds away from Ravalli County and towards the war effort, shortchanging the county in the one critical area that in recent years has relied heavily on federal money: public safety.

Ravalli County, like many western counties that include federal land, receives a check each year from Congress to compensate for the fact that federal lands cannot be developed and thus cannot raise local property taxes. This payment, known as PILT (“Payment in Lieu of Taxes”), resulted in a sizeable check for Ravalli County last year: $1.2 million, not exactly spare change for a county that operates on an $18 million annual budget.

As the fund is discretionary, county commissioners can dole it out to the neediest public services. In recent years, they’ve doled it out in greater percentages to the sheriff’s office, which last year received one-third of the total payment.

But as Congress gives, so can it take away, and commissioners fear this will happen as lawmakers take a hard look at how to pay for the war on terrorism. It’s not a good idea, commissioners say, to keep funding one of the county’s most vital services from a funding source they have no control over.

“In light of the Florence homicides and the lower than average number of deputies in Ravalli County, a voted levy for the public safety fund is recommended,” writes county accountant Klarryse Murphy in her financial estimates for the county commissioners. Fully 55 percent of registered voters in Ravalli County are over 60, a demographic that, historically, expresses concern about adequate police protection. And considering that the levy would increase taxes by a relatively modest amount—from $26 to $104 a year, depending upon the size of the home—one might expect the levy would pass.

That’s not a safe assumption, however, considering that the one person who would be expected to endorse it enthusiastically is also the one who has publicly rejected it: the sheriff. Sheriff Perry Johnson argues that his office would receive the money raised by a levy minus his share of the annual PILT payment. In effect, the taxpayers would ante up more for the same services. “I think what they’re doing with this public safety levy is a shell game,” Johnson says. “What they’re saying is, ‘We want to tax you for what you’re already receiving.’ I don’t want to do business like that. I want people to know what they’re paying for.”

Commissioner Jack Atthowe understands that Johnson opposes the levy, but he warns that without it—and assuming cuts in the PILT payment—the chronically understaffed sheriff’s department will likely lose some deputies.

Despite the sheriff’s opposition, Atthowe believes a case can be made to the voters through a concerted public education campaign. So far, however, commissioners have done little to get their message out.

One entity that has done its public education homework this spring is the Hamilton school district, one of five in Ravalli County that is asking taxpayers for more money in the May 7 election. Hamilton school district has two levies on the ballot this year: A building reserve levy to raise $110,000 a year for five years, and an operating funds levy to raise another $407,340. Asking for more money less than five years after voters said yes to a $13.6 million high school is difficult, acknowledges school district Superintendent Duane Lyons.

But this levy has nothing to do with the construction of the high school, he says. Rather, it’s the result of legislative budget cuts to education. Those cuts were backed by Gov. Judy Martz who, while she was in Hamilton last year, told Lyons that schools were getting enough money, but weren’t spending it in the right places.

If the levies fail, the first to go would be high school and junior high school activities, including cross-country, tennis, golf, weightlifting, cheerleaders, vocal music, pep band and uniforms. At least one principal and one fourth grade teacher would have to go, and music instruction would be reduced, among other cuts. If approved, taxes on a $100,000 home would increase by about $60 a year.

Across the street from the sheriff’s office, the Hamilton Police Department is also readying its public information campaign to raise $53,000 a year for each of the next five years. The department says the number of visitors anticipated for the 2003-05 Lewis and Clark bicentennial, the Sept. 11 attacks and the 2000 fires have or will strain resources. For Hamilton homeowners, the tax burden would be anywhere from $21 to $43 a year, depending on the home’s value.

If all four levies pass, homeowners within Hamilton city limits would be hit by the biggest tax increase. Looking at all four tax levies as one big tax bite could turn voters off, says Murphy.

“What the voters are going to have to decide is whether to…vote on each individually. They shouldn’t sit back and say, ‘I’m getting hit by all these levies.’ They need to look at each issue.”

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