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FJBC votes on irrigation fees, districts discuss legal issues

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ST. IGNATIUS – The Flathead Joint Board of Control approved an increase to the operation and maintenance fees irrigators will pay for water in the 2018 season during the July 11 meeting.

Flathead Indian Irrigation Project Manager Pete Plant presented a proposed $7.50 increase for fees earlier this year. The proposal was put on the on the Federal Register for rate adjustments with the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the public was given more than a month to send comments to Washington D.C. concerning the matter.

Plant said the BIA decided to reduce the increase to $3 per irrigable acre after reading those comments. Fees for each acre are currently at $26. In 2018, the increase will put fees at $29 per irrigable acre. He said the BIA reduced the amount, but next year, they will ask for an additional $3 for the following 2019 season. 

Board members discussed the increase. Board member Paul Guenzler said he was happy that the BIA was willing to reduce the increase by half for the first year, but board member Ted Hein said he wasn’t convinced the increase was needed. 

The board voted to approve the increase for the 2018 season with three members opposed. Plant said $240,000 would be used to hire additional personnel including people to work in the field and at least one person in the office. The fees would also be used for supplies and materials including concrete and steel. And $50,000 is earmarked for a deferred maintenance project. Plant is still deciding which of the project’s higher priority issues to put that money toward.

In other news, Plant said the project looks “pretty good” for water, but he isn’t guaranteeing that things will stay that way. “It depends on the weather,” he said. If conditions stay as they are, project water should be distributed until August. He is hoping to make it to the Sept. 15 shut off date. He said two pumps are currently running in Pablo. The third pump went down due to an issue with bearings.  

Chairman Ray Swenson addressed the current state of an independent audit for alleged “unauthorized credit card use” for the last three years with FJBC funds, which resulted in a loss possibly around $200,000. He said an accounting firm is still going through FJBC transactions. He believes the firm will have the information in time for the insurance company’s end of August deadline. The FJBC’s insurance company wanted the board to make a claim stating the exact amount of missing monies in order to receive compensation. Swenson said he isn’t given updates about how the FBI is progressing on their investigation into the matter.

After the meeting, Commissioner Dean Brockway explained that the FJBC’s computer wasn’t immediately removed when the investigation began, and he thought that someone with legal authority should have taken it. Board members decided that FJBC attorneys would hold the computer as preparation for the FBI’s investigation. 

Mission and Jocko District board members held a special meeting after the regular FJBC meeting to discuss a discovery request by plaintiffs seeking payment for legal services. The amount was reduced from around $94,000 to about $75,000.

Browning, Kaleczyz, Berry and Hoven, a Montana professional corporation, are the plaintiffs requesting discovery documents through the Montana First Judicial District Court in Lewis and Clark County. They are requesting knowledge and documents from the board pertaining to May 1, 2013 to Dec. 30, 2016, including who was on the board at that time and all lawsuits pertaining to the two districts. 

Jocko District Chairman Boone Cole explained that the legal services were acquired before the Mission and Jocko Districts dissolved in 2013 due to internal conflicts. They were later reformed. He also said that the district board members at the time had issues with billing and authorizations for consultants. He also said the assessed fees were too high. It was noted that the two districts are scheduled to go to trial for the issue in March 2018.

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