Mill site investigation

A bill in the Montana Legislature that would allow Missoula County to sue to collect back taxes owed by M2Green Development, LLC, for the former Smurfit-Stone mill site is on its way to the governor's office for signature. 

MISSOULIAN

Cleanup and redevelopment are still in the murky future at the former Smurfit-Stone pulp mill site at Frenchtown. But legislation on its way to Gov. Steve Bullock’s desk could give Missoula County a hammer to collect more than $1 million in back taxes.

House Bill 516 soared through a final vote, 84-15, on the House floor Monday afternoon. It enables a taxing jurisdiction to sue to collect delinquent property taxes once the taxes bill mounts to $250,000 or more.

M2Green Redevelopment, LLC, which purchased the abandoned, 3,200-acre Smurfit-Stone site in 2011, owes $1.3 million. And the total increases roughly $2,500 a day.

“I’m thrilled about this,” said Rep. Kim Dudik of Missoula, the bill’s sponsor who called it a “Make Frenchtown Great Again” bill before a second-reading vote in the House on Friday.

“I grew up out there and just talking with people and going to West Valley Community Council meetings before the last election and hearing their frustration and how really they’re in a no-win situation ... that’s not how laws are supposed to work,” she said. “I’m happy that this is an example of the Legislature doing something for the good of people we represent.”

The legislation enjoyed strong bipartisan support in its journey through Senate and House taxation committees and both general chambers. Dudik, a Democrat, was joined as co-sponsors by House Republicans Brad Tschida and Adam Hertz of Missoula; Republican Sens. Duane Ankney of Colstrip and Tom Richmond of Billings, and fellow Democrat Rep. Tom Jacobson of Great Falls.

An amended bill that added the $250,000 minimum passed the Senate on April 5 by a 40-8 count.

“The school needs the money, the fire department needs the money, the county needs the money,” said Jeri Delys of the West Valley Community Council, an advisory board to Missoula County commissioners. “This would take a burden off the taxpayers out here. (M2Green) would have to pay their taxes like everybody else does. Fair is fair.”

Jean Curtiss, who chairs the county board of commissioners, applauded Dudik’s efforts “to look for ways for counties to have latitude to find ways to collect delinquent taxes where a tax lien doesn’t work.”

“Nobody’s going to take a tax lien on that property with its (cleanup) issues,” she said.

As owner, M2Green inherited the site’s extensive environmental liabilities. Preliminary testing in 2012 and 2013 indicated cancer-causing chemicals in sludge ponds, groundwater and river sediments, as well as dioxins, furans and PCBs in northern pike and rainbow trout downstream.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed adding the property to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites nearly four years ago but, against Missoula County’s wishes, offered M2Green and other potentially responsible parties the option of a voluntary cleanup that it would oversee. Other responsible parties include Rock Tenn, successor to a bankrupt Smurfit-Stone, which is paying for additional sampling separate from the Superfund process.

Remedial investigation work on the property continues, and a quarterly interagency update of testing efforts by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is slated 10 a.m.-noon Tuesday via teleconference. The public is invited to call in by contacting Robert Moler, the EPA Community Involvement Coordinator, at moler.robert@epa.gov.

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After first passing the House by a 77-22 count in February, the bill was amended by the Senate and passed 40-8. Curtiss applauded the change to stipulate it would apply only to cases where $250,000 or more in taxes is owed.

“It’s not a tool we would use if someone’s behind on a private residence,” she said. “It’s really set aside for something like this, where nobody’s going to buy that property.”

Frenchtown Schools are owed nearly half the back taxes and would be the biggest beneficiary if they’re collected. Superintendent Randy Cline said in February that the current situation costs the district about 4 percent of its tax base.

“Every year when we have to budget, we take 4 percent right off the top because we figure we’re not going to get that,” he said,

Cline added that the district’s reserve fund was “extremely low,” to a point where it may have to ask taxpayers to pass a levy in 2018.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s office was noncommittal on the legislation, but Dudik said she doesn’t foresee any problem with Bullock signing the bill into law. If he does it will go into effect immediately.

Missoula County civil attorney John Hart said last week he wouldn’t speculate on his office’s plan of action. He expects commissioners Curtiss, Cola Rowley and Dave Strohmaier to open discussions on the options.

“Our office would provide advice to the BCC (board of county commissioners) if asked, but ultimately, the BCC would make the decision and authorize our office if the decision involved a suit against M2Green,” Hart said in an email to the Missoulian.

While the school or fire district could file a civil action for the delinquent taxes, Missoula County Treasurer Tyler Gernant said his recommendation is that the county lead the lawsuit “because we have the resources.”

Ray Stillwell, president and general counsel for the Illinois-based Green Investment Group, Inc., and M2Green, didn’t return a request for comment.

Stillwell and GIGI executive vice president Mark Spizzo announced the purchase at a May 2011 press conference at the front gate of the mill site in a celebratory gathering that included Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Missoula Mayor John Engen. At the time, Stillwell said the purchase price was in the $20 million range.

As the years went by, M2Green kept taxes up to date on some of the outlying parcels and sold two others to neighboring ranches. In a letter to the Frenchtown community last November, county commissioners said M2Green has appealed the taxable valuation for some parcels to the Montana Department of Revenue.

“Taxes due for the industrial core parcel ... have been reduced from $283,621 in 2012 to $138,022 in 2015,” the letter said.

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian