After Mathematical Error, Lincoln County’s Budget Under Scrutiny

By Beacon Staff

Almost a month after Lincoln County officials stood before a packed meeting room and told their constituents that a mathematical error resulted in county residents being overtaxed to the tune of $2.1 million, the commission is looking at how it can trim costs and pay people back. Among the suggestions is a plan to close the Troy Area Dispatch and combine its services with the Lincoln County Sheriff’s dispatch in Libby.

But Troy Mayor Darren Coldwell said closing the dispatcher’s office would detrimental to the community.

“I would hate to see Troy lose that service,” he said. “A lot of people think that Troy Area Dispatch just dispatches emergency services, but it’s a lot more than that.”

The error that has worsened Lincoln County’s already tight budget was found late last year, when someone noticed the county had allowed 56.86 mills to be levied for the Troy Area Dispatch, when it should have only been 31.91 mills. The mills are supposed to rise with inflation. Instead, upon further inspection, the county realized that taxes were inflating above and beyond that level. During the 2010–2011 fiscal year, dispatch received $8,526.36 more than it should have; in 2011–2012 it received $43,213 too much; in 2012–2013, $111,278.10; and in 2013–2014, $216,915.30; for a grand total of $379,932.76 over four years. Additional mistakes were found in how the Troy Parks District and the Lincoln County Campus District received funding. In all, Lincoln County over-taxed its citizens by $2,112,597.25, according to preliminary and unverified figures offered by the county.

L. Harold Blattie, executive director of the Montana Association of Counties, said the error happened sometime around 2009 when the county clerk and recorder was calculating tax data that determines how many mills ccan be levied in each district. Instead of entering the gross proceeds money received from the Troy Mine, the clerk entered the taxable value of that money and that mistake resulted in the mill levies exceeding their limits. On Feb. 7, the Lincoln County commissioners and Tammy Lauer, the clerk and recorder responsible for the mistake, met with citizens to inform them of what happened.

In the weeks since, officials have been combing over the books and have hired an independent auditor to look at the Troy Area Dispatch’s budget and audit all of the mill levy worksheets from the last three years. Once those reviews are completed, the county will figure out how to reimburse taxpayers. Commissioner Tony Berget said the county had hoped it would be able to simply issue a reimbursement check, but that turned out to be cost prohibitive.

“It looks like we’re just going to have to reduce taxes for the next two or three years and we’re now debating how long that will take,” he said. “But we want to do it as quickly as possible.”

Berget said the county is looking to make cuts anywhere it can, and one option is closing the Troy Area Dispatch, which is at the center of the mathematical mistake. Lincoln County Sheriff Roby Bowe has been hosting a series of public meetings about the matter and said consolidating the dispatch with the one in Libby would save money.

“It would be just as effective as it is now,” Bowe said.

According to Bowe, the Troy Area Dispatch’s budget is about $250,000 annually. He argues his dispatchers could do the same job for $10,000 every year, following an initial cost to update area radio towers that would cost $300,000.

However, Mayor Coldwell and Troy Area Dispatch board member Gene Rogers said closing the local dispatching center doesn’t make sense, especially since it was recently refurnished. Besides dispatching police and fire services, the Troy Area Dispatch organizes school bus drivers, utility workers and even occasionally helps reunite people with a lost pet. If the dispatching center were to close in Troy, six people would also lose their jobs.

“That’s six families impacted by this,” he said. “That’s not good for Troy.”

Berget said it would be up to the people to decide if the Troy Area Dispatch should close and it may be put on the ballot in June.

“It was voted in by the people and so we think it’s right that they decide what happens,” he said.

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