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Lake County digs for lost revenue

POLSON – Lake County’s budget broke even for regular expenses this year but it was a tight fit.

“Right now we have enough money for operating costs but nothing to expand or grow,” Commissioner Bill Barron said.

His wish list includes the expansion of the county jail with about an additional 100 beds, and if he can get the addition paid for, he said, grants are available to add a wing for mental health resources for things like drug addiction. The county is also under a court order to build courtroom offices to accommodate two judges to help make cases move quickly. Business and home development did expand in the county, which brought in $192,000 in tax revenue, but the county lost revenue from Shelter Island and SKQ Dam.

Barron is searching for ways to add revenue to the budget for growth. He said asking people for more tax revenue didn’t fair well with the public, so far, so he decided to look into saving money.

He looked through the budget for ways to make cuts and found that the cost of incarceration made a big dent in the budget.

Barron was once the Lake County Sheriff so he remembered Public Law 280. He said the law, developed in the 1960s, was designed to allow states and tribes to work together to provide law enforcement on reservations. Lake County was given jurisdiction over the reservation and took over the cost of incarcerating people of tribal decent.

“The cost for that has gotten pretty expensive,” he said, “at $1.7 million a year, not including meds.”

Several possibilities exist for change. Barron said he is talking with the Department of Justice to try and find funding sources. If that doesn’t work, people of tribal decent could be served by taking them to a federally funded jail. He said a final possibility could be to send the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes a bill for the expense of holding tribal members.

“Our communication with the tribe has been as good as it’s ever been in a long, long time,” he said. “We have been talking about different ways to approach Public Law 280.”

Barron was invited to speak at a meeting hosted by the Lake County Pachyderm Club to discuss county issues including the possibility of allocating the cost of providing incarceration services for tribal people to other sources, the need for a new jail and court offices, and the loss of tax revenue from Shelter Island.

The privately-owned island on Flathead Lake, which is currently for sale, contains a 24,000 square-foot house and other buildings. Private Island Marketplace calls it the largest private home in Montana with a price tag of $44.8 million dollars.

Barron said the property’s tax status was re-evaluated and the bill dropped $160,000 per year. In 2012, the tax was almost $430,000. The 2016 evaluation put the tax bill around $268,000.

He said the owners also qualified for agriculture status to help lower the tax bill. The loss in revenue was about as much as the county received from SKQ Dam before it was given a tax exempt status after the tribe took over management.

Several of the people at the meeting reminded Barron that the public doesn’t support an increase in tax. One person attending the meeting said she was on a fixed income. She said she couldn’t afford for her taxes to go up to cover county and city issues like a new jail, sewer and street improvements.

“Where are people going to come up with all this money,” she said.

Barron said that comments like hers are the reason he is looking into different funding sources. He also plans on having public meetings to get comments on Public Law 280 before the end of this year.

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