County budget spends more, but tax bills could see a slight dip

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Flathead County taxpayers could see a slight dip in their bills this year.

According to Flathead County Administrator Mike Pence, the county will start the fiscal year with a projected combined (tax and non-tax) beginning balance of nearly $58 million, a total revenue of $98.5 million, a projected ending balance of just over $57 million and a $99.2 million expenditure projection.

In a message to the commissioners last week, Pence recommended approval of the proposed budget, stating “I believe the management team has honored the direction of the Board of Commissioners to continue to hold the line as much as possible with our ongoing operations and service delivery.”

Among many other points made by Pence, he said the county continues to “maintain adequate cash balances for operations.”

The cash reserve fund — supported by property tax dollars — is projected to be $16.46 million at the end of the fiscal year, with a beginning balance estimated at $16.33 million.

The expenditure budget includes an $8.2 million capital improvement plan that is up from $6.4 million last year. The capital budget includes expenditures for culture and recreation, general government, public health, public safety, public works, social and economic services and solid waste. The county has also provided “funding by transfers” at about $3.9 million, which is dedicated to capital improvement plan needs in future years. This is down from nearly $4 million for fiscal year 2019.

According to Pence, the county personnel costs “represent a major portion of the total county budget.”

Among other personnel costs, there is a 2.4% cost-of-living raise for in the budget this year, totaling about $650,000. And for all county employees, with the exception of sheriff’s office deputies, there is an additional 0.1% budgeted for the state retirement program.

Flathead county has 543.3 full-time equivalent employees, which is an increase of 17.9 full-time equivalent employees. Approximately half of the new employees, some of whom were brought on during fiscal year 2019, are funded with federal and state grants and the other half is funded by property tax dollars.

The estimated expenditure appropriation amount in the tax levy funds for the fiscal year is 5.8% more than last year’s at $58.7 million. Each Flathead County department and office presented a line item to the commissioners during prior budget presentation sessions.

One significant expenditure is the next two phases of construction at the county landfill, which include an overhaul to the landfill entry system and scale. Another adds new full-time equivalent employee positions including two school resource officers, the funding of which will be shared by Flathead Electric Cooperative, Bigfork and Evergreen school districts and Flathead County.

The total taxable value for the county increased from about $245 million to about $268 million following the certification of new valuation numbers by the state Department of Revenue. That’s a 9% increase over last year’s valuation total.

In Pence’s letter to the commissioners, he brought special attention to impacts on taxpayers.

The proposed tax levy is 160.70 mills, down from 166.52 mills last year, which Pence largely contributes to the Department of Revenue providing high valuations. The actual property tax for fiscal year 2020 is $40.8 million, a 5.3% increase in actual dollars from fiscal year 2019.

The increase, Pence explained in his letter, “gets us to the maximum legal limit that is calculated with the formula provided by the state of Montana as approved by the Legislature and governor.”

The value of the county-wide mill is now $267,502, up 9% from last year. Assuming there is no change in taxable value, the impact to a taxpayer with a $200,000 market value property would be approximately a $15.71 decrease in Flathead County taxes and a $7.58 decrease on a property valued at $100,000.

“This is a mathematical calculation that will vary from one taxpayer to another based on their actual taxable valuation set by the Department of Revenue,” Pence said. “New construction provides significant new tax dollars that affect the action county tax increases for individual taxpayers.”

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