Lincoln County now has firm evidence of its mathematical mistake that resulted in the government taking an additional $2.2 million from taxpayers over three years. An independent auditor, Anderson Zurmuehlen & Co. P.C. of Missoula, released a report about the mistake on March 17 and revealed the county took $2,193,764.78 in additional taxes because of miscalculated levies.
Now, officials must figure out how to pay residents back while working with a shoestring budget. Lincoln County was already making deep cuts because of decreases in federal Secure Rural School funds before the tax error was discovered late last year.
Commissioner Mike Cole said in the coming weeks county officials would present the independent audit to citizens in Libby, Troy and Eureka and explain in clear terms what went wrong.
“We want to lay it all out there so people can grasp what happened and once that happens we can start figuring out how long it will take to pay people back,” Cole said.
The error was found when someone noticed that 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. Additional mistakes were found in how the Troy Parks District and the Lincoln County Campus District received funding.
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 can 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.
Cole said it’s unclear how long it will take to pay people back, but estimated it could take three or more years. The commission also has to figure out how to repay people who have since left the area.
“We’re all really frustrated with what happened and we just want to get it fixed,” Cole said.
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