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County Commissioner responds to irrigation issues, requests comments

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The August 4th Valley Journal published an article related to the collection of irrigation fees by the Lake County Treasurer’s Office. For decades the treasurer has collected those fees and distributed them to the districts upon demand. The Lake County Commissioners are considering ending this service due to the recent passage of the Montana Water Rights Protection Act. The article included numerous comments made by Janette Rosman, a member of the Flathead Irrigation District Board of Directors, and it is those comments that I feel need to be addressed.

A common thread of Rosman’s comments is that the Resolution of Intent, adopted by the commissioners, caught her and the irrigation district by surprise. The resolution should not have caught anyone involved with irrigation on the reservation by surprise. 

A draft of the MWRPA was distributed by Senator Steve Daines to news outlets in December of 2019. Section 12 of the draft stated that the Secretary of the Interior, or the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, acting on behalf the Secretary, was the entity “with the legal authority and responsibility to operate the Mission Valley Division of the project, and may allocate revenues derived from the Mission Valley division.” 

This draft made it very clear that the existing irrigation district boards would no longer be the entities requesting and distributing the fees collected by the treasurer. There was no language change from the draft of MWRPA to the final text of the bill passed by Congress. I would be surprised if a member of the board of an irrigation district had not read and was not aware of the changes the act made to operation of the irrigation districts. 

Also, since the resolution, if adopted, would not take effect until tax year 2022, 16 months seems like a sufficient amount of lead time prior to the county ending the collection of fees. Given the time frame involved in the process, and assuming that irrigation commissioners had read the act, there seemed to be no need to notify the individual districts of the proposed action.

Rosman also does not understand the process that the commissioners initiate with the adoption of a Resolution of Intent. All that has been done to this point is that a resolution has been written and publicly noticed. The commissioners presently are taking public comment related to the resolution. The resolution was publicly noted on July 28 and Aug. 4 and the commissioners have yet to receive any public comment. 

A hearing date has been set for Monday, Aug. 30, and the commissioners will allow more time for public comment during the hearing. Following the hearing, the commissioners will take action on the resolution. Options for the commissioners are to approve the resolution of intent and move it forward as a formal resolution, take no action, which would kill the resolution of intent, or table any action on the resolution. 

A final question that I would like answered by Rosman is why the county should be the collector of fees for the Bureau of Indian Affairs who now own the infrastructure of the project? It appears that if the county were to continue collecting irrigation fees, those dollars would then be passed on by the districts to the BIA. 

I fail to see the rationale for using taxpayer dollars to assess, collect and distribute fees for the BIA. Rosman suggests that the county should continue collection because of “how much tax money the irrigators in Lake County generate.” The level of county services that taxpayers receive is not dependent on how much tax revenue they provide. Those residents who contribute little or nothing in property taxes receive the same services as those taxpayers who have significant tax bills.

I would urge Rosman to contact the commissioners and provide public comment for us to consider. The more comment the commissioners receive, the better the decision we will ultimately reach. 

Comments can be sent by email to lakecommissioners@lakemt.gov or by mail to Lake County Commissioners, 106 4th Ave. East, Polson, MT 59860. 

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