By Tim Leeds
In a forum held Monday, local government officials expressed concern about the state centralizing control over many aspects of local government but leaving the responsibility local.
"They're taking things out of Havre, centralizing in Helena, and we're supposed to sit here and take this," said Havre Mayor Phyllis Leonard.
School district officials and representatives of local government met with area legislators to discuss the impacts of changes in taxes by recent legislatures. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Big Sandy said he organized the forum to collect local views on and facts and figures of the changes to present to those who will compose the 2001-2002 Legislature.
Hill County Commissioner Doug Kaercher said the state seems to want to centralize control of the money, then reimburse it back to the local governments to use for services.
He said that in the past, the county use to collect oil and gas revenues and disburse it on a monthly basis. Now it is collected on the state level, and supposed to be disbursed quarterly, but Kaercher said they were over a month late with that last quarter. The state also sent part of Hill County's payment to Blaine County by mistake, he said, and they are still working to straighten that out.
"The point is, the system wasn't broke when they fixed it," Kaercher said.
Kaercher said the changes enacted during the 1999 Legislature and the special session last spring is just the latest in a long line of changes.
He said he saw the same things happening when he was elected to the Havre City Council in 1988.
Ric Floren of the Havre Public Schools said growth and budget caps imposed by the state have a tremendous impact on local schools, especially with salary issues. He said the cap should be controlled locally.
"We do have a growth cap," he said, "it's called the school board and the trust of the voters."
One of the concerns expressed at the forum was about local accountability. Blaine County Commissioner Vic Miller said because of shifts in taxation, they are having to float additional mills to the taxpayers without increasing services. He said it's hard to justify raising taxes just to break even.
County officials also expressed concern about local accountability of officials. Since the assessor's job was taken over by the state, personnel is not available on a full time basis as it used to be, but Blaine County Commissioner Art Kleinjan said that's not the main problem.
"It's not the time, it's the attitude," he said.
Choteau County Commissioner Ken Engellant agreed, saying the assessor is no longer accountable to the local office.
Kleinjan said a problem arises when people call in with a difficulty or question about assessments, and they have to say "Sorry guys, we can't help you, it's not our office."
A common concern expressed was that members of the state government seem to have the attitude that they can do the jobs faster and more efficiently, while experience shows otherwise. The lapse in oil and gas payments was one example, and Hill County Commissioner Pat Conway used health department expenses as another.
Conway said the state underestimated administrative costs in the department last year, then tried to bill the counties for the extra cost. He said the state rescinded once the counties showed determination not to make up for the state's mistake.
Rep. Ray Peck, D-Havre, said the current problem is partially due to the Republican Party's promise not to raise taxes and to cut taxes. He said they can claim that they have held true to their promise by forcing local governments to make the tax increases.
"The legislators really pass the ball down to you and you have to make it work and keep the local taxpayers happy," he said.