Mineral County sends tax bill to Forest Service

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Mineral County Commissioners, Laurie Johnston (left), Roman Zylawy (middle), and Duane Simons (right) sign a letter which will be sent to the Secretary of Agriculture along with a property tax bill for U.S Forest Service land. With the loss of funding, the county has no other alternative than to assess the $445,337 tax. (Photo by Denley Loge)

The Secretary of Agriculture who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, will be receiving a property tax bill from Mineral County this year. County Commissioners Laurie Johnston, Roman Zylawy, and Duane Simons signed the letter requesting property tax revenue for 2017. The “historic letter” as defined by House District 14 Representative, Denley Loge, describes the plight Mineral County is facing as options to fund the county have dried up.

“The loss of funding from the federal government has left Mineral County, Montana with no other alternative than to assess the Federal Government for their portion of the property taxes on 640,183 acres they manage within Mineral County,” the letter states. That tax total is $445,337.

The letter was spearheaded by St. Regis School Board member, Carol Young, who presented the idea to both Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte during their recent visits to Mineral County. Both of them said they would take a look at the letter and Daines said he would present it to legislation stating that, “the good folks of Mineral County are out of options here. I will present it, it makes a good point.

With over 90 percent of the county owned by the government, primarily the forest service, this leaves less than 10 percent of the tax burden on private land owners. Both Payment in Lieu of Taxes or PILT, and Secure Rural Schools Act, or SRS, were established to offset the loss of land to the government, but have not been renewed this year.

“My thought is why shouldn’t all this federal land pay tax just like all the rest of the property owners?” Young said during a recent meeting with Sen. Daines. “It would be an immediate way for us to get our economy built up. We wouldn’t have to try and get things through Congress, instead we can simply send a tax bill and it would be between half a million and three quarters of a million dollars a year. We are currently on our way to zero funding from the government. We all pay property tax and here’s a million acres of land all around us and the burden of the taxes is on that 7 percent private landowners.”

Zylawy said they know the tax bill is a shot in the dark to really make any true change but it’s a way to get the conversation going about the plight facing rural counties like Mineral.

The letter was signed during the March 9 County Commissioners meeting with copies sent to Montana representatives. The March 8 letter to the Honorable Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture, in Washington D.C., reads:

“Dear Mr. Secretary:

“In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt create a contract with counties across the nation with national forest lands, known as the Twenty-five Percent Fund Act, to fund services according to fiduciary responsibilities and basic stewardship principles. Amended in 1976, the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) program was insufficiently funded from its inception. Furthermore, the Secure Rural Schools Act of 2000, established to offset the loss of the land management economy to rural schools and communities, has not currently been renewed. In short, the Federal Government has failed to fulfill its obligation.

“This failure is especially difficult for a rural county such as ours wherein the federal government, namely the US Forest Service, manages 82 percent of the land. The state of Montana manages approximately 10 percent of Mineral County, leaving the remaining 8 percent in private, taxable ownership. Mineral County has an insufficient tax base, Montana’s fourth highest unemployment rate out of 56 Montana counties at 7.9 percent, a poverty rate of 17.2 percent, and the median age of 51.6. This is the source of revenue for the operation of schools, law enforcement, and basic service to the citizens of Mineral County. Under the current funding model, government at all levels fails. It fails to provide the basic safety and services to the citizens of Mineral County.

“The loss of funding from the federal government has left Mineral County, Montana with no other alternative than to assess the Federal Government for their portion of the property taxes on the 640,183 acres they manage within Mineral County. Please refer to the attached document for the details of the tax assessment against the United State of America. By the computations of the Montana Department of Revenue, the initial obligation owed to Mineral County is $445,337.

“President Trump has done an admirable job defining and taking action on the “Bad Deals” negotiated in the past on behalf of the United States. This is a “Bad Deal” for the rural communities in our country. This “Bad Deal” must be renegotiated. The choice to drastically decrease logging on public lands managed by the US Forest Service has devastated our communities and economy. This tax assessment is the cost of that choice. Every other alternative to resolve this ‘Bad Deal,’ has failed.

“Our only optimism resides in your ability, as a cabinet member of President Trump, and that of our duly elected officials to resolve this injustice. Simply accept the responsibility for the land held by the federal government as any other taxpayer of Mineral County. We ask no more.”

The letter is signed by the Mineral County commissioners, with copies sent to U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester; U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, and Montana Gov. Steve Bullock.

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