Missoula County is in the final stages of its budgeting process, with an expected drop in property tax rates. But as with the city taxes, property owners likely won’t be paying less, thanks to a jump in property values.
While property values in Missoula County did rise on average by 12%, the county still saw a shortfall in its expected revenue, in part due to the city annexing land that was formerly only in the county, Commissioner Josh Slotnick said.
“Not to say that the city was wrong to annex that property; it definitely made sense based on the development and infrastructure needs there,” Slotnick said. “But it had an impact on the revenue we saw from any development being done on those properties.”
Other shortfalls came from underpayment by the state for housing state inmates at the county jail, the federal government cutting its payments to the county for federal lands that can’t be taxed, and corporations such as railroads and utilities that cross county lines paying less taxes year after year.
Slotnick pointed out that those county-line spanning businesses, known as centrally assessed properties, own lots of property in the county, and when the corporations’ accounting departments find ways to make them seem less profitable through things like aging infrastructure, they end up paying less taxes.
In the previous tax cycle, the owner of a $250,000 residential property paid $795.29 in county taxes. If the home were still worth the same amount this year, the owner would pay $13.64 less. But if the property increased in value by the 12% average, the owner will pay $884.20 this year, an $89 increase in county taxes. That is in addition to city and school taxes, depending on where the property is located.
Due to the shortfall in revenue, commissioners worked through each new funding request from the various county departments to suss out what was essential, and what could be put on hold, Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said.
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Among the things that didn’t make the cut in the final proposed budget was a request by the county elections office to make mail ballots in the May 2020 primary election postage-paid. Paying the postage would have cost the county an estimated $40,000, but after investigating how it went in other states, the data showed little to no change in turnout.
County Elections Administrator Dayna Causby said her office was interested in having the postage be paid due to new state laws largely preventing third-party groups from collecting mail-in ballots. But because of the lack of data supporting increased turnout, the plan was scrapped to save taxpayer money.
Some of the places where commissioners decided the county could afford investment were in a variety of new road maintenance equipment and increased Sheriff’s Office staffing at the courthouse, detention center and a special duties unit.
At the county’s public hearing Thursday, which sought public comment on the proposed budget, only former commissioner Jean Curtiss came to speak. She pointed to a variety of county plans to spend money on what she saw as services primarily supporting the city of Missoula and those who live in it, rather than the county as a whole, which spans from Lolo to Condon.
Strohmaier told the Missoulian he disagreed with the notion that the county should disregard city residents since they are also county residents.
“This dichotomy pitting us against each other, saying there should be no county investments in city programming is patently false,” Strohmaier said. “I understand in the past there has been plenty of water under the bridge between the city and the county, but I think our level of collaboration has never been greater, which reflects our commitment to Missoula County residents, a great number of which do live in the city.”
The public still has until the commissioners' scheduled meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday comment on the proposed budget before the commissioners vote to adopt it. The final opportunity for public comment and the final vote will be held in the Sophie Moiese Room at the county courthouse.