County elected officials, deputies get cost of living increase
The Cascade County Compensation Board voted unanimously to give a one percent cost of living increase to elected officials and non-union employees.
The board, which includes three county commissioners, the county attorney, treasurer, sheriff and a justice of the peace as well as three community members.
County board votes to increase salaries of elected officials by 2.4 percent for upcoming fiscal year 
When the board approves a cost of living adjustment of any amount other than zero, under state law it triggers a one-percent longevity increase for sworn sheriff’s deputies. The longevity increase is one percent of a deputy’s base salary on the anniversary of hire per state statute only in years when a COLA is approved, according to Mary Embleton, county budget officer.
This year, local government budgets are expected to be tight due to COVID-19, unemployment and an anticipated increased in protested and delinquent property taxes, so the board looked at various options and the fiscal implications.
Sheriff Jesse Slaughter made the motion for the one percent COLA and said that he believes the increase is necessary for morale at the sheriff’s office where deputies are seeing increased levels of crime and the county pays deputies less than many other Montana counties.
The one percent COLA is an additional personnel cost of $122,580.82 and the one percent longevity increase for sworn deputies is an additional $21,071.35, according to county figures.
The increases do not affect employees included in collective bargaining agreements and some of those are still in negotiations, but the estimated increase in personnel costs for those wage increases is $450,839.88, according to county figures.
During the meeting, Embleton reviewed the conditions for the budget being prepared for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1 and is being developed.
Protested taxes have impacted county revenues, which in turn impacts the City of Great Falls and school districts.
GPPS to access protested taxes for operations
The impact for the county this year is $2.5 million, Embleton said, with the second half of property taxes due by the end of this month.
Calumet tax appeal delayed to September
Calumet Montana Refining protested their taxable valuations from 2017 and additional protests are anticipated.
The county tax appeal board voted in March 2018 to reduce Calumet’s valuation from $538 million to $312.5 million.
Dept. of Revenue files appeal over Calumet taxes
That decision was been appealed by both Calumet and the Montana Department of Revenue to the Montana Tax Appeal Board. A hearing is set for Feb. 19, 2020 and then rescheduled for September, but Calumet and DoR have settled.
According to the DoR, of the roughly $17 million paid by Calumet under protest for tax years 2017-2019, about $9.5 million will be released to the local jurisdictions and $1.5 million to the state.
Those numbers include the payment for the second half of 2019, which isn’t due until May 31.
The chairman of the state tax appeal board notified The Electric on May 19 of the pending settlement and The Electric has been requesting the breakdown of the distribution to the city and school districts since then.
DoR sent the notification to Cascade County on May 21, according to DoR, but the notification went to the clerk and recorder’s office instead of the treasurer’s office, according to Diane Heikkila, county treasurer.
Heikkila told The Electric on May 28 that her office now had the information and will process the protest resolution next week and have details on the distribution to the other local jurisdictions then.
A spokesperson for Calumet said the company was pleased to reach a settlement with the state but wouldn’t release any other details.
During the May 28 compensation board meting, Embleton said that in the current budget, protested taxes increased by $724,288 over the previous fiscal year.
“This is a big impact on the county’s tax flow for maintaining services and operations,” she said.
Embleton said revenues should remain steady into the next fiscal year since she doesn’t think property values will change much but delinquent taxes might increase.
The entitlement share, which includes funds from a variety of things such as gambling, from the state is an unknown this year, she said. In the current fiscal year, the county’s entitlement share was $2 million, according to Commissioner Joe Briggs.
Briggs said there’s a formula for the entitlement share, but the legislature changes it every session so “it’s not a reliable formula.” He said last year the county was supposed to get a two percent increase, but lawmakers froze it. Briggs said it hasn’t gone down except when the state taxes over functions from county government, but increases are “subject to legislative whim so we can never really count on this.”
Department heads have been asked to keep their operating costs level and the county likely won’t do much in the way of capital improvements in the next budget year, other than a water main replacement at Expo Park, according to county officials.
Mary Jolley, a justice of the peace, said she’s always supported the COLA as recommended by the Montana Association of Counties, but since unemployment is high due to COVID-19, she was leaning toward not supporting it.
She said she was thinking about people in town who are struggling due to the pandemic.
“We didn’t struggle a bit,” Jolley said. “We can pay our bills.”
Without the COLA, the deputies would not get the longevity increase that other officials advocated for.
The board is looking into whether it can reconvene, under state law, to adjust their decision depending on financial information that will become available in the coming months.
As far as reimbursements for the county’s COVID-19 expenses, it’s not clear what will be eligible for reimbursement.
Briggs said he’s been in conversation with the governor’s office and been told that the county’s direct costs will be reimbursed through the state’s allocation of federal CARES Act funds, but not likely other associated costs.
“It’s not going to be a profit center, we’re just trying to get back our direct costs,” Briggs said.
The base salary for fiscal year 2020, which ends June 30, is:
- county commissioners: $64,580.17
- county attorney: $115,429.37
- county treasurer: $64,580.17
- county clerk and recorder: $64,580.17
- clerk of court: $64,580.17
- justice of the peace (2): $64,580.17
- sheriff: $64,580.17