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Lake County commissioner, judge candidates face questions at lively Ronan forum

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Ronan forum

Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker and his campaign treasurer unfurl a spreadsheet with what Decker says are Lake County’s tax-exempt properties at Wednesday’s forum.

RONAN — A massive ream of paper and allegations of fudged data enlivened Wednesday night's Lake County candidates forum.

Both came up in the section devoted to the county commissioner’s race when Republican incumbent Gale Decker and Democratic challenger Caroline McDonald sparred over the current state of Lake County finances.

Throughout this campaign, Decker has cast lost property tax revenue as a dire challenge for the county. In particular, he’s called for a way to mitigate the impact when the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes place their land into trust held by the federal government, taking it off the tax rolls.

When moderator Brian James asked both him and McDonald to “explain the impact of the fee to trust on the county budget and your proposed solutions,” Decker said he would use a “visual aid.”

He and his campaign treasurer, Reed Tobol, proceeded to unfurl a yards-long spreadsheet, made of connected office paper, in front of the audience.

“There are 37 properties per page,” he said. “This is all the properties that are exempt from taxation in Lake County … In those pages there are 296,075 acres of exempt property. There are about 1 million acres in Lake County.”

Last week, Decker told the Missoulian that, per his calculations, Lake County has lost $66 million to tax exempt trust land since 1986, or an average of about $2 million per year. He explained he gathered tax data from trust land deeds filed with the Lake County Clerk and Recorder’s Office, put it into a spreadsheet, carried the tax losses forward for each year after they had begun, and applied a consumer price index inflation factor to the data.

He acknowledged getting a hard number had been difficult, and said the numbers had not been vetted by an outside accountant or other expert.

Decker did not discuss those calculations in his response, but McDonald tore into them when it was her turn to speak.

The trust land property tax loss, she argued, was a small fraction of the county’s overall collections. “My opponent has claimed that the value of this loss is really $2.2 million annually. Don’t be fooled. This is not a real loss. Simply put, the real numbers weren’t upsetting enough. So he had to make them cumulative, apply inflation, sprinkle some creative manipulation and voila! Instant public outrage.

“Why?” she asked, “Because as long as you are distracted by this fake crisis, you will forget that he has ignored so many real issues,” such as drugs, zoning, law enforcement and investment. “We need a commissioner who will put the fee to trust issue in perspective alongside the real ones who are being ignored.”

The two not only differed on the problem’s scale, but also its solution. Decker said Lake County had to properly assess properties, ensure exemptions were correctly applied, and “come up with a replacement for these tax dollars.” He mentioned a sales tax and the federal government’s Payment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes program as two possible replacements.

McDonald previously discussed a funding agreement between the state and Lake County as a possible solution for the loss of revenue; Decker dismissed that possibility in his closing remarks Wednesday. McDonald, meanwhile, put the emphasis on a different group.

“If we had a better relationship with the tribes, we should enter into negotiations with them and begin discussions about revisiting the issue through legislation, or some other creative solutions,'' she said.

“But the point is, you would need a commissioner who has the professional respect of tribal leadership to even enter into such negotiations.”

The relationship between Lake County, the Salish and Kootenai Tribes and other local governments was a recurring talking point for McDonald — and a fissure between her and Decker.

For instance, both candidates concurred that the county has a bad reputation for business. McDonald attributed that problem, in large part, to a poor relationship with the Tribes, saying that “there are so many people who are very wary about working and doing business on a reservation, and because the county currently has such a poor, poor working relationship with the Tribes, that just reinforces the idea … and the collateral damage of that reputation means that we are driving outside business away.''

“We must repair that relationship,” she continued, “so that we can bring more investment into that community, expand our tax base and take the burden off our current taxpayers.”

Decker, however, posited that “maybe it’s not the county that’s difficult to work with. Maybe it’s another government that’s difficult to work with.”

He also said issues he considers beyond the commissioners’ control — a lack of affordable housing and a skilled workforce — could also be hurting investment. “All I do know is that high property taxes drive businesses and economic development away,” he said.

The incumbent also pushed back against allegations he had been uncooperative. “There will always be contentiousness in this relationship” between the county and Tribes, he said, “but the contentiousness does not have to go to the level where it’s destructive.”

The Commissioners’ contest wasn’t the only local race in Wednesday’s forum. Ashley Morigeau is challenging Judge Deborah "Kim" Christopher for her seat on Montana’s 20th Judicial District Court, which covers Lake and Sanders counties. This race is nonpartisan.

Morigeau, a Polson-based public defender, put the focus on rehabilitation in her opening remarks.

“Everything that happens in the courtroom has an impact in our community,” she said. “Sending someone to prison creates the absence of a parent, a child, a friend or a neighbor.

“It’s no secret that drugs are a huge problem in our communities, and I’m running to create treatment programs that actually work.” She lauded drug courts as one such program, and a cheaper alternative to incarceration.

In her initial statement, Christopher emphasized her experience, which includes three years as a Trial Counsel in the U.S. Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, five years as Lake County District Attorney, and three consecutive six-year terms as District Judge.

She said she found her military service “to be a really great training ground in your ability to listen, your ability to lead and your ability to make decisions. I think team building is incredibly important, but to the extent you do that within the context of being a judge, you keep an arm’s length from some of the things that you do.”

She did, however, discuss her role creating a court-appointed Special Advocates program, which pairs volunteers with children involved in abuse- and neglect-related proceedings, for Lake and Sanders counties and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Asked what criteria they would use to impose sentences outside of standard ranges, Christopher dwelled on the need to stay within those ranges. “The Legislature gives you a range for a particular crime, and then it’s a judge’s responsibility to determine where in that range an appropriate sentence might land,” she said.

Morigeau agreed, saying, “I’m legally required to sentence within those ranges.” But when deciding the exact amount of time, “I want to know things about that individual person … As a public defender, most of the clients I represent have chemical dependency and mental health issues, and that would be important for me to know as a judge.”

She said she would also want to know about a convicted person’s criminal record.

Both candidates voiced support for drug-treatment programs outside the criminal justice system.

Morigeau’s campaign website calls for expanding Lake County’s Drug Court, which places participants in an intensive rehabilitation program.

While Christopher also backed addiction treatment, she said she considers it a medical issue, rather than a criminal one. She also noted drug-related activities can compromise public safety, “and that is one of the first things that criminal law is there to do is to protect the public, and so it is critically important that we follow the law with regard to that.”

In addition to these candidates, the forum featured Democrat Eldena Bear Don’t Walk and Republican Joe Read, candidates for House District 93, and Democrat Susan Evans, who is challenging incumbent Rep. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, for House District 12’s seat. The Missoulian is covering all state legislative races in a question-and-answer format.

The forum was held at the Ronan Community Center and sponsored by the Lake County Republicans and Democrats, Mission Valley Rises and the Valley Journal. The next one will take place from 6 to 8 p.m. on October 17 at the North Lake County Library in Polson.

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