County to Pursue New Tax to Fund 911 Center

Flat tax would charge $25 for residents, businesses would be on sliding scale between $50 and $1,000

By Molly Priddy
Elizabeth Brooks, director of the Flathead Emergency Communications Center, addresses questions during a meeting with the Flathead County Commissioners on Oct. 28, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Flathead County will pursue a new tax to pay for the county’s collaborative emergency services center.

The Flathead County Commission held a public hearing and a vote on the new special fee district on Oct. 28, earning support for the proposed tax from the cities and emergency services personnel, but opposition from some business owners who worried about the exact amount they’d be taxed.

The special fee district would encompass the entire county, and would cost residents $25 annually. Businesses would be taxed based on their classification, with the minimum at $50 and the maximum at $1,000.

Commissioners Gary Krueger and Phil Mitchell voted to pass a resolution showing their intent with this measure, which will be followed by a 60-day protest period before the official final vote at the end of December would create the district.

Commissioner Pam Holmquist was not present.

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry, who also serves as the chairperson for the 911 Center’s board, said this solution is the most “equitable and fair” for long-term payment to come out of the board’s future funding subcommittee.

When the 911 Center was voted into existence and built in 2009, the levied funds were used for construction. Initially, the future funding committee was supposed to devise a method of long-term funding for the center, which survives now on county mills and contributions from each city’s budget.

As it stands, Curry said the 911 Center has virtually no budget for capital improvements, and barely gets by on the money it receives.

“We make payroll and we pay the light bill,” Curry said.

The special fee district would be fairer than the current funding mechanism, Curry said, because city residents are being taxed twice to pay for it, once through county mills and again through their city’s contribution to the center.

Whitefish City Manager Chuck Stearns offered his support for the district, saying this is the fairest plan he’s seen come out of the subcommittee, which got to work on this problem in 2010.

Joe Brenneman, a former county commissioner, opposed the district. He said the county had the chance to secure long-term funding through grants and other opportunities, but didn’t.

“The need for this (district) is in some ways a colossal failure on the part of the Flathead County Commission,” Brenneman said. “It’s unfortunate that things haven’t been developed in the last five years to make this tax unnecessary.”

He also said the district wouldn’t actually be fair, because someone in Marion would be paying for the city of Kalispell’s dispatching fees, as an example.

“There is no reason on Earth someone living in Marion should have to pay for KPD,” Brenneman said.

Columbia Falls City Manager Susan Nicosia, however, said the cities aren’t receiving any free benefits. The residents in Columbia Falls are already paying for the “blue and brown,” she said, meaning the police force and the sheriff’s deputies.

She noted that the city has already passed a resolution supporting such a district; all three cities passed similar resolutions when the district was on the November ballot in 2014. The ballot measure failed by 10 votes.

Kalispell City Manager Doug Russell also voiced support for the district’s creation, calling it a more efficient way to run emergency services. Fire chiefs Joe Page, of Whitefish, and DC Haas, of Smith Valley, also supported the district.

Several local business owners spoke out against the district, out of concern for the potential taxes that might be levied against them. Tim Price, who owns Flathead Fitness in Kalispell, said he and his wife, who owns Fawn Boutique, are facing a triple tax, and that he couldn’t support it because he wasn’t sure how much he would be charged, since the gym falls in the same category as other large businesses.

Doug Johns, owner of the Montana Call Center, said more transparency about the charges and what the taxes would actually pay for is needed before the commission brings the district to life.

Following the business owners’ testimony, county finance director Sandy Carlson told the commission that the special district was based on a five-year projected operational budget, as well as a five-year capital improvement project plan, both of which are available on the county’s website.

Furthermore, deputy county attorney Tara Fugina said that once the resolution of intent passes, residents and business owners would receive letters informing them of their specific charges. All the information is ready to go, Fugina said, but sending it out hinged on the commission’s vote.

Businesses will also be able to protest their taxed amount, she said.

Before the vote, Mitchell said he wished the district had been created sooner, so as not to crunch up against the end-of-the-year deadline, but that there is a huge need for capital improvements at the 911 Center.

“The present funding between the cities and the county is not fair,” Mitchell said.

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