By Patrick Winderl/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Property owners can expect up to a 7 percent increase in their Hill County property taxes this year, county officials said Thursday.
A declining taxable value of property within the county and a decrease in nontax revenue necessitated an increase in mill levies, the three-member County Commission said after finalizing the budget for fiscal year 2003-2004.
The total tax increase is 16.4 mills, Commissioner Doug Kaercher said, adding that most of those are from special levies approved by voters.
The hike will particularly affect those whose property's taxable value increased under a new state Department of Revenue appraising formula, Commission Chair Pat Conway said.
Overall, the dollar-for-dollar revenue generated by the county will increase only slightly over last year despite the tax increase, Kaercher said. Since last year, the value raised by one mill has fallen by more than $600 to $26,468, he said, meaning an increase was necessary to keep department budgets at their previous levels.
The increase will allow the county to continue providing services at the previous levels but little else, the commission said.
"There's no fluff in it at all," said Commissioner Kathy Bessette. "Our department heads did a good job of budgeting only what they needed."
The total budget this year is $5.11 million, compared with $4.93 million last year. Budgets for the county Road and Health departments recieved minor increases over last year, while funding for the City-County Library and the Weed Department fell.
The budget for the County Road Department rose from $2.21 million to $2.39 million. The increase was less than department head Jerry Otto had requested, but a tight budget forced him to revamp it, Conway said.
The budget for the County Health Department increased from $292,000 for fiscal year 2002-2003 to $312,000 this year, but county officials warned that the number could be deceiving.
State and federal funding for the department has decreased significantly in recent years, and many of the department's programs are stretched thin, department director Cindy Smith said. The department has become reliant on grants to fund some of its programs, she said.
The County Weed Department took the biggest hit, losing more than $60,000 in funding. The department will receive $176,000 this year.
The amount the library receives from the county also fell - down from $193,000 last year to $159,000 this year. In the face of budget shortfalls, entities like libraries and museums are often among the first to lose funding, Bessette said.
Funding for other departments remained close to previous levels.
The county has seen a sharp decline in the taxable value of property over the past five years, Kaercher said. Since fiscal year 1998-1999, the value has dropped by more than 25 percent, he said.
This year was no exception to the trend.
For 2003-2004, property within the county had a total taxable value of $26.4 million - $800,000 less than last year.