County approves budget with $12 annual tax increase; will set mills for other districts on Sept. 8 including special levy to recoup Calumet protested taxes

Earlier this week, Cascade County Commissioners voted to approve the budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.

The budget includes a tax increase of about $1 per month for those living outside the county with a home valued at $160,000. Within the city limits, the tax increase is about $1.18 for a home valued around $200,000, according to Mary Embleton, county budget officer.

County budget available for public review, comment

This year’s budget includes levying 5.75 more mills for county taxes since the taxable values countywide decreased this year, in part due to the Calumet Montana Refining tax appeal settlement, Embleton said.

The proposed budget includes a 3.1 percent increase in spending including:

Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said that the first scanner they tested at the jail didn’t meet their needs.

During the Aug. 26 meeting, commissioners approved an agreement with Adani Systems Inc. to demo a Conpass DV Futl body scanner machine at the jail for 60 days at no cost to the county.

Slaughter told The Electric that he has budgeted to purchase a scanner, but won’t make the purchase until he tests the equipment.

Slaughter is also hiring two full-time civilian courthouse bailiffs for making official court proclamations and announcements in the local district court. A sword deputy will remain as courthouse security, he said.

The budget includes an overall increase of 1.6 percent from property tax revenues, including motor vehicles.

The county is estimating a 4.26 increase in tits entitlement share from the state, plus an overall increase in revenues from other state and federal resources, totaling a 13.8 percent increase, mostly from grants, according to Embleton.

The permissive medical levy is decreasing slightly due to a decrease in healthcare premiums through the Montana Association of Counties plan from $623 per month to $615.

The county is also budgeting for about $500,000 of COVID-19 related funding for the Cascade County City-County Health Department, Aging Services and the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office.

The full budget is available here and Embleton’s budget presentation is here.

On Sept. 8, the Cascade County Commissioners will consider setting tax levies for independent taxing jurisdictions, which include the City of Great Falls, Great Falls Public Schools, the rural school districts, special districts and incorporated towns.

GFPS accessing protested taxes for operations

That will include 13.59 in special mills for the school district to recoup $1.939 million lost to the Calumet tax protest that was settled in May.

The Calumet tax appeal process took three years and for the first two years, the Great Falls Public Schools district accessed those protested taxes to make their budget whole.

“Without those funds, there would have been emergency cuts on top of cuts that had been happening for 10 years,” Patrick said.

GPPS to access protested taxes for operations

The district budget is done on a cash basis by enrollment and other factors in the state formula and without those funds, the district would have been short $2.5 million in the first year and $1.3 million in the second year, according to Brian Patrick, GFPS’ director of business operations.

City manager recommending budget with no tax increases; limited funds

The school board vote was unanimous for those decisions, according to board minutes and Patrick.

The school board voted in June to access the protested funds for the third year, but since the appeal was settled in May, those funds were not paid out, Patrick said.

Under the tax appeal settlement, the district had to pay back some of the protested funds to Calumet.

Patrick said the district pulled from reserves and paid back $1.23 million to save the taxpayers the interest on those funds.

State law allows school districts to access protested tax funds and if the settlement requires some to be paid back to the appealing taxpayer, the law provides a mechanism for a permissive levy to recoup those funds.

The district itself doesn’t have the authority to levy the mills, but the county does so on its behalf.

Yellowstone County had to do something similar with CHS, Inc. settled a major tax appeal over its refinery in Laurel in 2018.

Patrick said that the district levies specific amounts to make bond payments, as approved by the voters, and when Calumet protested taxes, the district was still obligated to make those bond payments and the money isn’t available in other funds either due to the protested taxes, he said.