County authorizes legal defense for state education mill dispute

Cascade County Commissioners voted unanimously during their Oct. 24 meeting to authorize legal assistance from the Montana Association of Counties in a statewide lawsuit over state education tax mills.

The Montana Department of Revenue has directed counties to collect 95 mills for the statewide tax that supports public education funding.

County opts to levy fewer education mills, likely setting up state lawsuit

The Montana Association of Counties has argued that the state’s mills are also subject to state law which limits increases to the amount actually assessed in the previous year plus half the rate of inflation. That’s the same cap local governments are subject to when adjusting property taxes.

That amount, under the cap, is 77.9 mills, according to several counties and the Montana Association of Counties.

Cascade County Commissioners voted 2-0 on Oct. 11 to set their levy at 77.9 mills. Commissioner Joe Briggs was out of town.

MACo is the county’s insurance provider.

Cascade County officials consider whether to reduce education mills in dispute with state

Lawsuits have already been filed in district court as well as the Montana Supreme Court over the difference of opinion between the state and counties.

MACo is planning to pursue legal action, asking the Montana Supreme Court for a declaration on the proper interpretation of state law for calculating the education equalization mills.

Cascade County Commissioner Jim Larson said that “there is certainly room for argument on both side,” but that the county will likely be sued whichever route it takes.

Larson said he “would hate to be sued by our constituents, so I would let our attorneys take on the state.”

Commissioner Joe Briggs said conversations regarding concern over the education equalization tax calculation were ignored during the legislative session.

He said the same law that limits counties and cities to increasing taxes by half the average rate of inflation over the last three years applies to the state’s education equalization mills.

Briggs said state administrations have ignored the conflict in interpretation for the last 20 years but this year it came to a head.

The best course of action, he said, is to have to Montana Supreme Court determine if the state law capping municipal property taxes also applies to the state.