© 2014 Concerned Citizens of Western Montana
Freedom of Men under Government, is, to have standing Rule to live by, common to every one of that Society, and made by the Legislative Power erected in it; a Liberty to follow my own Will in all things….” ~John Locke
What happens when the same set of rules don’t apply to everyone?
The rule of law is supposed to provide us with predictability and certainty. When the laws that exist are applied equally and respected in society, citizens are able to conduct their business within the constraints of the law and without fear of interference by the government.
But what happens when the government chooses to enforce some of its laws while ignoring others? It makes the system more arbitrary, allowing for exemptions from compliance for some while forcing others to submit to the law. In other words, the average person would no longer know or understand the rules they are to supposed to follow. Injustice and chaos would result.
So what does all that have to do with this compact? Although there are many examples of how the compact attempts to skirt, circumvent or change the law without going through the proper process, this post only focuses on one local issue related to irrigators and the proposed compact water use agreement: the recent administrative fee tax assessments of the Mission and Jocko irrigation districts of the Flathead Irrigation Project.
On September 9, 2013, the Mission and Jocko Districts held a special meeting to pass a motion to withdraw from the Flathead Joint Board of Control. The last agenda item for the meeting was Establishment of Annual Administrative Assessment.
It was the last actionable item of the meeting, and surprised everyone in the room. After discussing earlier in the meeting how much money the districts would save their constituents by withdrawing from the Flathead Joint Board of Control, two out of three commissioners in each district voted to increase irrigator’s administrative assessment fees by 300% from $2.65 per acre to $9.00 per acre. This action was intended to build a pool of money for the significant legal fees these commissioners had already started incurring in their efforts to garner “momentum” for the irrigator water use agreement and the water compact.
The assessment itself was the first time irrigators in these districts knew of commissioner plans to increase their administrative fees. The way it was accomplished was underhanded and deceitful at best, illegal at worst.
On September 11th, 2013, these districts submitted their assessment paperwork to Lake County well after the statutory deadline established in Montana statute 85-7-2104. A copy of one of the documents submitted to Lake County can be found here.
Montana statute 85-7-2104 says this about the timing of assessments:
“on or before the first Monday in August each year, the board of commissioners of each irrigation district organized under parts 1 and 1.5 shall ascertain: (1) The total amount required to be raised in that year for the general administrative expenses of the district, including the cost of maintenance and repairs.
WHAT THE “AUTHORITIES” SAY
Had the rule of law been applied, taxpayers impacted by this assessment should have been able to count on the fact that whether or not they agreed with the assessment, the missed statutory deadline would guarantee that the increase would be added to their tax bills in November of 2014, not November 2013. By imposing these assessments on the November 2013 tax bills, Montana statute 85-7-2104 was essentially ignored.
This issue was brought to the attention of the Missoula, Sanders and Lake County Treasurers, County Attorneys and Departments of Revenue. Only Missoula County chose to respond stating that said it did appear that the statutory deadline was missed, and wishing us luck on its resolution.
On January 2, 2014 Lake County civil attorney Mark Russell stated that he was not going to do anything about the taxes levied because “deadlines are missed all the time and it’s no big deal”. He also stated that the irrigators’ only remedy was to sue the County and the irrigation district in addition to filing their taxes in protest.
On January 3rd, 2014, a letter was sent via registered mail to Attorney General Tim Fox after receiving this less than stellar response from Lake County. We requested that his office intervene to prevent these County Attorneys from depriving citizens of their rights and taxes that were levied in violation of the law.
HOW DID ATTORNEY GENERAL FOX RESPOND?
Resounding silence. There was no response from the Attorney General’s office, not even an acknowledgement of receiving the letter except for the certified mail receipt from the post office.
This issue relates to our property taxes. If you or I fail to pay our taxes within the statutory deadline for the state of Montana we are significantly penalized in the form of additions to our tax bill, and ultimately the county can and will take away our property to recover the “unpaid taxes”.
However on the other side of the coin, government departments, agencies, county attorneys and even our own attorney general can choose to selectively “ignore” other statues related to the levy or assessment of taxes, because after all, “deadlines are missed all the time and it’s no big deal”.
Apparently the “authorities” are only concerned with WHO misses the statutory deadline for tax assessments. Government officials and districts: no problem. Private citizens: watch out for a tax lien sale coming to a county near you.
Is Lake County the only county in Montana that “looks the other way” concerning the assessment of taxes?
It’s definitely a question worth asking.