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County questions taxing accuracy

Hagadone News Network | September 6, 2023 2:00 AM

Flathead County has attached itself to other counties in the state seeking a determination of whether the state is accurately taxing property owners.

County commissioners on Thursday approved sending a letter to state Attorney General Austin Knudsen saying the board supports a letter from Beaverhead County seeking an opinion on state law as it pertains to taxing authority and 95 mills tied to funding schools.

The commissioners in the letter say that it has come to their attention that there might be deviations from the prescribed guidelines within state law leading to “unintended consequences in terms of over-taxation of Flathead County residents.”

The Montana Association of Counties has also supported the effort to get an opinion on the interpretation of laws related to property tax levies.

The request seeks clarification on the calculation of the statewide school equalization mills.

The state has consistently levied 95 mills annually for schools despite a provision in the law that requires a reduction in levying authority when taxable values increase. But city and county governments argue they actually collect less because the number of mills total they can levy decreases as taxable value increases.

But the same isn’t being applied to the school levy as the state has continued to levy 95 mills instead of reducing it, according to the letter by Beaverhead County Attorney Jed Fitch.

“This matter is one of statewide concern,” Fitch said in the letter. “Counties are responsible for preparing the tax bill for all taxing jurisdictions and have a duty to ensure the tax bills are correct.”

School advocates say the 95 mills came as a response to litigation from school districts that found the state was inadequately funding public education.

“We hold those 95 mills pretty near and dear in terms of the solution that it employed for ensuring equity across different taxing jurisdictions and different tax bases,” Lance Melton of the Montana School Boards Association told the Daily Montanan.

Eric Bryson, the executive director of the Montana Association of Counties, said the error could lead to over-levying property taxpayers under the current reappraisal cycle.

“The attorney general’s opinion on this matter will provide crucial guidance on the interpretation of the law, and it is essential to resolve this question promptly as it directly affects the property tax bills of constituents statewide,” he said in a statement.