Lawsuit filed over library levy election

Two Cascade County voters have filed a lawsuit against the City of Great Falls over the June 6 library levy election.

Beth Cummings and Dena Johnson filed a petition to annul and set aside or void the election in district court on Aug. 4.

Both voted in the June 6 election as city residents, according to their lawsuit.

They ask that the court stop the city from collecting the mills approved during the June 6 election and to void the election.

Cascade County officials certified the election on June 19.

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Cummings and Johnson argue that the ballot language and dollar amount of associated mills was incorrect.

According to the lawsuit, Cummings “is an absentee voter.”

The June 6 library election was conducted as a poll election, at the direction of Cascade County Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant. Absentee ballots were mailed in mid-May.

In her lawsuit, she states that she found discrepancies in the ballot and contacted Commissioner Rick Tryon “just days before the election.”

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Tryon suggested she contact the city attorney and she left a voicemail and emailed the attorney on June 3-4, a Saturday and Sunday.

According to her lawsuit, the city attorney did not respond to her before the election on Tuesday.

Cummings states that she spoke with Commissioner Eric Hinebauch said the dollar amount listed on the ballot wasn’t correct but the ballot was correct because the ballot included the word “approximately.”

The City Commission voted in February to send the library levy to the voters in the form of an amendment to the city charter, which specifically stated at the time that the city could levy two mills for the library.

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Commissioners sent a charter amendment to the ballot that would increase that amount by 15 mills for a total of up to 17 mills.

Voters were asked if they were for or against amending the charter language.

Voters approved the charter amendment and the city intends to levy the additional mills this budget year.

Library levy approved

According to city officials, because they opted to increase the charter language to “up to 17 mills” they had the flexibility to levy less than that amount if able.

Because they chose a mill amount, they did not need to set a specific dollar amount on the ballot.

City officials used an estimated dollar amount for those mills on the June 6 ballot based on last year’s tax figures.

City officials could not have set the most accurate figure on the ballot as it will depend on this year’s taxable values and mill amount, which they don’t know until they received their certified taxable values from the Montana Department of Revenue, which typically happens in August.

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Cummings and Johnson argue that the ballot language didn’t explain the other funding sources for the library, including seven mills set by a 1993 agreement between the city and library board of trustees.

That agreement was developed under the city’s public meeting process and is not a separate mill levy but an agreement to provide seven of the city’s regular mills to support library operations.

That agreement has been publicly available for 30 years and those mills are discussed during the annual budget process.

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Library officials discussed the library’s funding structure during public meetings about a proposed levy dating back to 2021.

In 2016, the City Commission adopted municipal code pertaining to the library that maintained the 1993 agreement.

Cummings and Johnson also argue that commissioners “egregiously increased the annual tax burden on city taxpayers to fund the library’s increased budget-knowing that non-city taxpayers would enjoy the expanding library services and programs at no additional cost to the county,” according to the lawsuit.

City charter change proposed for library levy

The county provides $177,000 to fund the library annual under an agreement with the library’s board of trustees.

City Commissioners have no authority to levy taxpayers outside the city limits.

There has been discussion of a rural mill levy for those living outside the city limits to support the library and that decision will be made by the County Commission.

County Commissioners are developing their budget now and didn’t indicate they intend to increase library support this year, but that there will need to be a discussion about county support for Great Falls Public Library services, which are available to all county residents.

Library board to discuss levy options [2022]

Cummings and Johnson also argue in their lawsuit that the city included incorrect language in the public notices for the June 6 election. They also argue that the city commissioners prepared the ballot.

The Cascade County Elections Office was responsible for preparing those public notices and the ballots, according to city officials. They used language set by commissioners in their February resolution.

All of those documents and the ballot language was publicly available in February, and had been discussed for several months before commissioners held a public hearing on the ballot question.

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Cummings and Johnson argue in their lawsuit that the library ballot language is different from the public safety levy ballot language approved by commissioners in March.

The library levy was done as a city charter amendment, which has specific language requirements different to that of a regular mill levy election, according to state law and city officials.

Library looking at funding structure options, possibility of levy [2021]

Cummings and Johnson asked the court to set a hearing on the petition within five days of bit being filed.

The lawsuit was filed on Aug. 4.

As of Aug. 13, no hearing had been set.