Commissioners take action to cease fee collection
News from Lake County Commissioner Gale Decker
LAKE COUNTY — Mission Valley irrigators will notice a significant change in their tax statements beginning in tax year 2023. Fees for operation and maintenance of the three irrigation districts will no longer be collected by the County Treasurer and distributed to the districts as has been done previously. A Resolution of Intent to discontinue the collection of the fees was considered by the Lake County Commissioners in July of 2021, but action was tabled after the Commissioners received comment from the districts requesting more time to put in place an alternative method of collecting the fees. Another public hearing was conducted on July 20 of this year for the Commissioners to again consider action on the Resolution of Intent. After considerable discussion, the Commissioners passed the Resolution effectively ending the collection of irrigation fees by the County.
Numerous irrigation projects like the Flathead Indian Irrigation Project were financed and built by the Federal government decades ago. The Feds wanted to ensure that the irrigators benefited by the projects paid back the dollars spent in construction, so liens were placed on individual irrigator’s properties. In addition, the State Legislature enacted laws requiring County Treasurers to add irrigation fees to landowner tax statements knowing that the fees would have to be paid at the same time the property taxes were paid. The collected irrigation fees were then distributed to the irrigation districts who used the funds to operate and maintain the district with the understanding the project would be owned by the irrigators when construction costs were fully repaid.
The Commissioner’s decision to discontinue the collection of fees by the Treasurer was based on language in the Montana Water Rights Protection Act that was signed into law by President Trump in Dec. 2020. That language provides that the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, on behalf of the Secretary of the Interior, are “the entity with the legal authority and responsibility to operate the Mission Valley division of the project...” The Act also establishes that the Tribes are now responsible for rehabilitation, modernization, and operational improvements to the infrastructure of the FIIP. One billion dollars is to be initially deposited in the Settlement Trust Fund established by the Act, and an additional ninety million dollars is to be added to the fund on Oct. 1 of each calendar year through 2029 to carry out improvements to the project. The CSKT will be given the money to fund the improvements to the project, but the improvements will be owned by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The FIIP is now owned and operated by the BIA and the CSKT, leaving the districts with only being able to offer advice and comment on how they would like to see the project operated. Since the BIA sets the fees for irrigation project operation and maintenance, the Commissioners felt that those fees should be collected by that agency. In the opinion of the Commissioners, it is no longer necessary, or appropriate, for the County to collect fees that are then distributed to the irrigation districts who hand those dollars off to the BIA. There are other BIA operated irrigation districts on reservations in Montana and the BIA collects the fees assessed to irrigators. The Commissioners believe that process could be used for the Mission Valley Irrigation District.
Another factor in the Commissioners’ decision is that the fee information received from the districts and added to the individual irrigator’s tax statement is often incorrect. When an irrigator discovers incorrect information, they contact the Treasurer’s Office demanding corrections that cannot be done by the Treasurer. Significant staff time is spent explaining the process to correct errors to the irrigators. Dedicating staff time in the Treasurer’s Office to try to correct errors in BIA information sent to the districts and then to the County does not seem to be a good use of that time.
The MWRPA does establish a process by which the Mission Irrigation District and the CSKT could enter into a cooperative agreement to operate and maintain the FIIP, but according to minutes from the irrigation districts no such agreement has been reached.