By Ron VandenBoom
BIG SANDY Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy, is working to revise or eliminate outdated or confusing state statutes that may do more harm than good to local government.
Tester sits on the Montana Legislature's Local Government Committee and is one of the legislators charged with the responsibility of reviewing statutes that no longer serve a purpose or obstruct the smooth functioning of local government.
"There are rules that deal with advertising for example," Tester said, explaining that state statutes require local governments advertise for one length of time if they want to sell a piece of land, but are required to advertise for a different length of time if they are advertising for a job opening.
"State and local people get pretty confused," Tester said.
House Joint Resolution 29 charged the committee with the responsibility of simplifying and modernizing the statutes during the last legislative session.
It is not a responsibility Tester thinks will end any time soon.
"We hope to get part of the code updated for sure," he said, adding that the process is definitely going to extend beyond this interim period.
"There's so much more to do," he said.
Also on the committee's agenda is finding a fair solution to what Tester referred to as a employment/structure problem.
Juvenile probation officers (JPOs), for example, are hired by, and have their salaries determined by, district judges, but local government is obligated to pay the salary.
"What we're trying to do is find a way to fund the salary at the state level while still maintaining county control," Tester said.
Tester said the committee has not yet determined how best to fund the salaries and benefits for court employees if the state does take over financial responsibility. He also notes that in some cases current employees might be making more than "state scale" and believes these employees should remain on the county pay scale.
Tester said he is also concerned about the approximate $600,000 price tag currently suggested for implementation and transition costs and what could mean the creation of another Helena bureaucracy.
"It doesn't make sense to increase bureaucracy in one area unless we can decrease bureaucracy in another," he said.
Over all Tester said he sees the idea easing the financial burden on counties, but others at the county level see it as an intrusion into local control.
Dena Tippets, Hill County Clerk of Court, said in February she was concerned about the committee's work and opposed the idea of state funding.
"I personally am opposed to that because even though they say it would only be a matter of funding, once the state can control fiscally, you know what's going to end up being next," she said.
She pointed to the state taking over the county assessor office as an example of what she fears.
The state's takeover of the maintenance and funding of secondary highways highways in Montana also created controversy in Hill County when it was learned changes would have to be made to Beaver Creek Park Road.
"More and more it seems like the state is trying to take over more and more local control," Tippets said. "That's the feeling I get and people involved in the issue see that."
"I really feel strongly about local control," she said.
Tester said the committee is composed of a broad base of people that represent the Clerks and Recorders Office and county commissioners, and legislators.
Tester said that when the committee has finished its work they will compile a list of suggested changes for the legislature to act on.
The committee will next meet April 27 and 28 in Helena.