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Months of finger-pointing between state-level Republicans and local government leaders over who to blame for rising property taxes escalated this week as the lobbying organization that represents county governments sent a late-night press release that, among other points, singled out Gov. Greg Gianforte’s personal tax bill.

The release, sent by the Montana Association of Counties at 8:30 p.m., Wednesday, said its math shows taxes on Gianforte’s personal home in Helena’s mansion district are likely to decrease next year even as broadly rising property values cast the specter of higher taxes before many Montana homeowners. That’s because the governor’s property, now appraised at $776,700 by the Montana Department of Revenue, appreciated more slowly than the typical home in Lewis & Clark County — and because the county’s local governments scaled down their tax rates to account for higher property values.

The governor and other prominent Republicans have consistently argued that rising property taxes are the fault of counties, cities and school districts failing to keep their budgets in check. Many local government leaders have countered that the governor and GOP-controlled Legislature haven’t taken state-level action that could lower taxes on homeowners.

In their release this week, county officials argue that they’re keeping spending down as they set their budgets this summer. The only part of the governor’s Helena tax bill that’s likely to increase, they say, is the portion controlled not by local governments but by the state.

“Surprisingly, his taxes will DECREASE year over year because his appraised value only increased 7.59%,” Mineral County Commissioner Roman Zylawy said in the release. “The limitations on local government result in a decreased tax burden for his home, with the exception of the State levies, which haven’t followed the statutory limitations that cities and counties must follow.”

(Gianforte also has access to the publicly owned governor’s mansion in Helena and owns a home near Bozeman, which saw its appraised value rise by 54% to $1.3 million. Official tax bills will be sent out by county treasurers later this fall.)

There are many facets to the property tax issue, but the county association is focused particularly on the state’s “95 mills,” which produce dollars the state then passes to schools to even out the funding available between rich and poor districts.

Most property tax rates scale to match the dollar amounts of local budgets, which in are in turn subject to growth limits specified in state law. However, the 95 mills rise in direct proportion to property values. With assessed values up dramatically in this year’s reappraisal cycle, that means an estimated $91 million a year in additional collections.

The counties maintain that the governor could and should have scaled down the 95-mill tax to avoid pulling that extra money from taxpayers. In fact, they argue that a correct reading of the state’s local government tax cap statute requires the reduction.

The governor disagrees, noting the state has treated the 95 mills as a constant-rate tax exempt from the cap for decades and expressing skepticism that he can order the reduction without attracting a court challenge. Additionally, Gianforte argues the equalization tax performs an important role in ensuring highly valued mines and resort properties help pay for schools beyond their immediate communities — costs that would otherwise fall on homeowners in predominantly residential districts.

“Drawing down the 95 public school mill rate not only would provide a windfall for a few large industrial corporations and a few school districts already flush with resources, like Big Sky, but also over time would increase the tax burden on Montanans in most local jurisdictions,” Gianforte wrote in a letter to county commissioners Sept. 8.

Also opposed to the reduction is the Montana Federation of Public Employees, which represents most public school staff.

“By writing that letter, those county commissioners are literally suggesting the defunding of their neighborhood school. It’s just craziness,” MFPE President Amanda Curtis told Montana Free Press. She added that she also faults Republicans for failing to pass legislation that would have kept residential property taxes in balance with those paid by businesses.

Mike McGinley, a Beaverhead County commissioner, said in an interview that the reappraisal has produced a windfall for schools. He added that he believes any shortfall produced by scaling back the equalization funding could be made up for out of the state’s General Fund, which is filled primarily by income taxes.

For now at least, the debate is in the hands of Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who Beaverhead County officials have asked for a legal opinion backing their interpretation of the tax cap law. According to McGinley, that response is still pending.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

Fire Lookout 🔥

Fire season appears to be tapering off as temperatures drop in western Montana and firefighters disband some camps as fire activity slows down.

The National Weather Service reported Wednesday that Montana’s high-elevation valleys along the Continental Divide are likely to experience near- or below-freezing morning temperatures by the end of the week. Forecasters have lowered their fire risk ratings across the state for coming months in part due to “recent season-slowing precipitation” in northwest Montana, according to Northern Rockies Geographic Area Predictive Services meteorologists.

Accordingly, fewer personnel are now assigned to large fires. According to Anna Bateson, fire information public affairs specialist for the Lolo National Forest, large fire camps are no longer set up for the River Road EastBig Knife, and Colt fires as management responsibilities have transitioned back to local units. The highest-staffed fire remaining in the state is the East Fork Fire south of Trego, with 130 personnel as of Friday, Sept. 15. That fire has burned 5,259 acres and is 75% contained.

Plans to conduct prescribed burning as early as mid-September have also been announced by the Bureau of Land Management’s Missoula Field Office and the Yellowstone Ranger District in the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. In a Thursday release, Dan Poole, fire management specialist with the Missoula Field Office, said that regional wildfire activity had moderated. “We want to be prepared to make progress on our fuels treatment projects when weather conditions turn favorable,” Poole said. 

Bowman Leigh, Fire Reporting Intern

The Viz 📈

Just how deep do Montana’s widely discussed housing affordability woes run? Newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau sheds some statistical light on one facet of the challenge.

Housing affordability is a product of two things: how much it costs people to keep a roof over their heads and how much income they have to pay for it. While Montana has seen ballooning housing prices in recent years, the state’s population is also earning more. The census figures indicate the median housing payment in 2022 was about $1,000up from roughly $730 in 2012. Median household income, in comparison, was about $68,000 last year, up from roughly $45,000 a decade prior.

A typical rule of thumb is that “affordable” housing costs its occupants no more than 30% of their pre-tax income — say, for example, no more than $1,000 a month or $12,000 a year for a single person with an annual salary of $40,000.

According to the new data, from the bureau’s American Community Survey program, about 29% of Montana households were paying more than that threshold last year.

As one might expect, that burden varies dramatically by income bracket:

Nearly all Montana renter and owner households with incomes of $50,000 or more, 89%, reported housing costs below that 30%-of-income threshold. Lower-income households, in comparison, often struggle. Of Montana renter households below the $50,000 income mark, 69% are cost-burdened with housing payments above the 30% threshold.

That percentage, which equates to approximately 71,500 households, has risen by 9 percentage points over the last decade.

Some caveats: Unlike the decennial census counts, which try to reach almost every U.S. resident directly, American Community Survey numbers are based on responses from a sample of Montana’s population, meaning these figures involve some degree of uncertainty.

Additionally, these numbers represent the full state, both destination communities like Bozeman and parts of Montana that remain comparatively affordable. They also include longtime homeowners who have either paid off their mortgages or have housing payments that reflect the lower purchase prices available to buyers in decades past.

—Eric Dietrich, Deputy Editor

By the Numbers 🔢

The rate the state of Montana agreed to pay a senior professional with the private consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal Public Sector Services LLC in a two-year contract initiated Sept. 1. The New York-based firm will be responsible for advising the state on several overlapping behavioral health and developmental disabilities services reforms spearheaded by the Gianforte administration. 

According to a copy of the contract received by Montana Free Press through a public records request, the state also agreed to pay the firm’s junior professionals an hourly rate of $517.50 and the support staff $460 per hour. The money will be paid out of a pot of $300 million allocated by the Legislature this year meant to invest in behavioral health reforms for future generations.

—Mara Silvers, Reporter

3 Questions For 

We caught up this week with University of Montana School of Journalism Director Lee Banville, who oversees what might be the college’s most provocatively named class: “Calling Bullshit.”

The online course, Banville said, is intended to explore how misinformation spreads so quickly in the digital age and teach people to be more conscientious producers — and consumers — of truth. This fall, “Calling Bullshit” has attracted more than 100 enrollees. Here’s some of what he had to say about it:

MTFP: How the heck did we get to a point where the J-School is offering a course specifically about misinformation?

Banville: With the rise of digital tools and social media, everybody is a producer of information. If it’s you retweeting something — or re-Xing, or whatever we’re calling that now — or you’re posting something to Facebook or you’re liking something on Instagram, you are propagating information. What we realized was we needed a course that, sure, journalists could take, but was also open to everybody to basically say, “You are part of this system. You are not just a consumer. You’re a producer, you’re a sharer. How do we give you some of the skepticism that journalists are taught in journalism school, but also fight back against some of the paranoia that has erupted in the post-fake news world where nobody believes anything anymore?”

The course is not about the bullshitter, it’s about the bullshit. It’s about not picking fights with your relatives or picking fights online but rather being a smarter consumer.

MTFP: I feel like this is an issue we’ve seen play out a lot recently, not just nationally but right here in Montana. Are there any specific cases of misinformation that the course hits on?

Banville: I try to not pull anything that’s part of an immediate political debate because then it looks like I’m taking a side in the political debate and they discount me if they’re from the other side. And I try to show that this is something that you’re going to encounter across the political spectrum.

I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “Oh my God, I encountered this AI-generated evil video about Joe Biden.” And I’m like, “I can almost guarantee you it is not AI-generated. It was made by some guy who doesn’t like Joe Biden, but it’s a person, not a robot.” But you can’t just be like, “Look, old person, robots aren’t running everything,” because that just puts them on the defensive and they stop listening.

It’s scary to stand up and say, “I found this information that disagrees with you.” A lot of people are like, “I’m scared to say that to my uncle, or I’m scared to say that on social media because people will yell at me.” What I’m trying to do is find a way to give [students] enough agency to say, “Here’s what’s true, but I ran into this out there and I think this is how they got to where they got.”

MTFP: So what advice would you give a news consumer for determining what information to trust in this world of bullshit?

Banville: Everybody has an opinion, not everybody has good sources. Be skeptical until you see a source not that you believe but that really feels knowledgeable and well-placed and authoritative. And then if you find that the person who introduced you to those sources does this a lot, be they a journalist or some dude or dudette on Twitter/X, start to be like, “Maybe this is a source I return to.”

There are a lot of experts out there who know more than all of us about the subject that they studied. Let them bubble up because they’re a good source of information. If I can get people to be looking for those sources and putting a little bit of trust in them — not blindly, it has to be earned, it has to be kept — but if they could start to find these things they trust, then it starts to change the equation.

Want to learn more? Check out the University of Washington class and book the UM course is modeled on.

A judge in Helena this week partially blocked one of Montana’s two new charter school laws, t

On Our Radar 

Amanda — Jim Robbins’ New York Times piece about the decline of cold-water fisheries in southwest Montana builds off a similar story he wrote two years ago when the state was grappling with drought. He writes that contributing factors include warmer water, lower flows, shrinking insect populations, and falling dissolved oxygen levels.

Alex — I’ve been digging the New York Times’ newish op-ed podcast “Matter of Opinion” all summer, but last week’s episode really struck a chord. The four-person podcast crew launched into a spicy discourse about the culture wars in American classrooms, asking whether they’ll end any time soon or whether they’re actually a historic component of the nation’s education landscape.

Arren —  I owe a substantial tip of the hat this week to Lee newspapers’ Seaborn Larson, who broke the story of Public Service Commission member Randy Pinocci’s Sept. 6 arrest on a disorderly conduct charge. 

Bowman — This fire season, I’ve enjoyed listening to the Life With Fire podcastproduced by journalist and wildland firefighter Amanda Monthei. Monthei also co-wrote an informative Washington Post story about prescribed burning that takes place in the Seeley-Swan range, called “Fighting Fire with Fire.” The use of multimedia there makes that piece a thing of beauty. 

Mara —  My old boss, Mary Harris of Slate’s What Next podcast, put together an amazing piece of reporting with This American Life about a nonprofit crisis hotline that tries to prevent people from dying of drug overdoses. It’s a confronting, heart-grabbing, thoughtful episode. You can listen on the What Next feed or on This American Life.

Eric — Want to avoid blue-state taxes on your luxury vehicle? As Missoulian staffer David Erickson reports, you can often register it in Montana whether or not you live here. 

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