POLSON – At the website for Energy Keepers, the tribal-owned corporation managing acquisition of Kerr Dam for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, a clock ticks down – to the second – the time left until ownership changes.
The countdown will hit 180 days on Sunday. Had they fired the clock up when this process first started, it would have been counting down for the last 30 to 40 years.
Saturday, Sept. 5, will be a historic day. The CSKT will become the first Indian tribes in the nation to own a major hydroelectric facility.
“The first thing is, it’s an opportunity for the tribes to reacquire a major resource that was lost to us during the allotment days,” says Energy Keepers CEO Brian Lipscomb. “The dam is a major site that controls the top 10 feet of Flathead Lake, plus the river below that has always been so important to us.”
The tribes, which have received rental payments from the dam’s prior and current operators, will finally “benefit completely” from the use of a resource on their reservation, Lipscomb adds, and will also provide good-paying jobs, many of them to tribal members.
So far, 18 of 22 full-time positions have been filled by Energy Keepers – 11 of the 18 staffed by tribal members – including three dam operators who have either completed training or will before Sept. 5.
Lipscomb says everything is on schedule for Energy Keepers to assume control of Kerr Dam as that countdown clock subtracts the time between now and September.
A couple of things remain unknown, however.
One is what the tribes will call the dam, which was named for a former president of Montana Power Co. A new name has long been part of their ownership plans.
The other is what will happen when almost $1 million in property taxes is lost to the state, Lake County and the Polson School District. Tribes do not pay state property taxes on land held in trust for them by the federal government.
The CSKT government has indicated a willingness to consider offsetting the loss of revenue, but whether it will, how it might, and how much it might, has not been decided.
The 2014 property tax bill on Kerr Dam was for $999,325. While not exact, the total roughly divides into one-third that goes to Lake County, one-third that goes to the Polson School District and one-third that goes to the state for public education.
“It impacts a lot of different entities,” says Gale Decker, chairman of the Lake County Commission. “The Mission Valley Aquatics Center, cemeteries, senior citizen services, libraries, roads – everyone is impacted somewhat. Schools are the ones that would take a huge hit. I know there’s a little bit of angst there.”
In 2014, $619,000 of the $1 million tax bill went to support public education, including $299,000 to School District 23.
“We haven’t heard anything,” says Polson Schools Superintendent Linda Reksten. “We don’t know what the tribes may choose to do.”
Another $308,000 went to the state school levy – that’s money for an equalization fund that is redistributed to poorer school districts in Montana – and $12,000 to the state university levy.
The county’s share of the $1 million was $313,000, with another $67,000 going to special districts such as the one approved by voters to help fund the aquatics center. The aquatics center received $14,593 of the $1 million in 2014.
Lipscomb suggests those affected reach out to the CSKT Tribal Council.
“If you’re going to be impacted, go talk to the council,” he says. “Your message is best delivered face-to-face.”
At the county level, commissioners say some funding is guaranteed by law, but the burden would be shifted to remaining property taxpayers if CSKT does not offset the revenue losses. Other voter-approved mill levies, they say, have no way to replace their share of the Kerr Dam tax revenue pie unless the tribes do.
“In the county, we can raise the number of mills we collect to make up for lost revenue,” Commissioner Ann Brower says, “but it means everyone else has to come up with the difference.”
Property taxes support 32 separate categories at the county level, and are used to help pay for everything from salaries to indigent burials.
Taxes from Kerr Dam, in 2014, contributed almost $46,000 to the county’s general fund, more than $45,000 to the road department, and more than $100,000 in three different categories related to public safety.
There was $3,044 that went to weed control, $4,169 for senior citizen services, $1,230 for the Lake County Fair, $4,128 for public health, $834 to mental health services, $667 to support ambulance services in Polson, Ronan, St. Ignatius and Arlee, $4,336 for Lake County District Court, $271 for libraries in Ronan, St. Ignatius, Arlee and Swan Lake, and $23,223 for the North Lake County Public Library in Polson (part of a library district created by voters in 2010).
“The concern is, if they give us money, that it’s earmarked for specific items or projects,” Brower says. “If it’s earmarked for specific projects, the tax revenue loss is still going to hit home. These are services used by all residents.”
“I think the sentiment from the tribes has been to help us mitigate the loss,” Decker says. “How it might happen, and how much money is involved, is still uncertain.”
Lipscomb says he can’t speak for the Tribal Council, but believes “they’ll certainly be considering impacts to communities, and impacts to tribal members.”
“The tribes are good neighbors, and have been in the past,” he says. “For 20 years, we’ve worked with the county on road and bridge projects.”
CSKT also leases tribal land – for $1 per year – to entities such as the Arlee Fire Department for its fire station, and the Hot Springs Medical Clinic. Both serve both tribal and non-tribal members.
Ownership of the dam comes with eight separate properties in the county currently on the tax rolls. The nearly $1 million tax bill in 2014 was for the property where the dam itself is located. Annual tax bills on the other seven properties range from about $500 to $2,000.
For Brower, the “ideal outcome” would be for CSKT to offset the exact losses with payments in lieu of taxes.
“Put the payment exactly where it came out,” she says. “That would be the dream, and that would benefit all the residents who live in Lake County.”
“We’re hoping for the best,” Decker says. “Our relationship with them is good, and we have open lines of communication. They’ve indicated they’re willing to listen to our concerns, and we appreciate that.”