Glacier County is paying to keep the lights on at the Browning Volunteer Fire Department and City Hall as the town teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.
Commissioner Michael DesRosier said this week the county agreed to pay for utilities at the two buildings to maintain fire services and to keep the county’s satellite office open. The county is also paying to fuel Browning’s fire trucks.
“Our big concern is for public safety and maintaining services like the fire department,” he said.
Browning closed its offices Feb. 1, nearly a week after Mayor William Morris told employees he no longer had money to pay them. Morris said he was unsure if or when the town offices would reopen and declined to speak in detail about Browning’s financial troubles.
In December, town officials announced that their finances were in such bad shape that Browning would either go bankrupt or file for disincorporation. At the time, the town placed much of the blame on the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, specifically an ongoing legal battle over water and utility services.
Questions have arisen over the last few years about who owns the water system in Browning following a multi-million dollar expansion that was spearheaded by the town and the tribe. Unresolved lawsuits have been filed on both sides in tribal and federal courts. Tribal officials dispute the claims that they are at fault for the financial troubles.
While town officials have threatened to discorporate, DesRosier said he thinks that is unlikely. For that to happen 15 percent of the community’s registered voters would have to make an appeal for an election to the county commission or two-thirds of the town’s governing body could call an election. If 60 percent of the community votes for disincorporation then the town would dissolve within two months. The town’s assets would be liquidated to pay any outstanding debts. If those assets did not cover all debts, then the county commission would create a special tax for property owners in the former town until the bills were paid off. The county would most likely be responsible for providing services like plowing and street repair.
About 1,000 people live in Browning, located in the heart of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.
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