Sleight Of Hand?: Something Stinks In Great Falls Park District Number 1

As I have chatted with folks around Great Falls over the past two weeks since the May 8th mail-in school district levy and Park District 1 election, folks have expressed some surprise that the school levy failed while the Park District proposal passed. I’ve wondered the same thing myself because the school levy was a much smaller tax increase proposal, $1.49 million, than the Park District proposal, $1.5 million annually for the first three years up to approximately $12.6 million over 20 years.

Now it seems likely that one of the main reasons that happened is because a lot of voters may not have been aware that the creation of Park District 1 carries with it a significant tax increase for property owners.

Why wouldn’t voters be aware of that important piece of information? Because it wasn’t included on the ballot as required by Montana law as I and many others read it.

The ballot language for the school district tax increase included the required information –  total amount ($1,349,047.67), total mill 9.84 mills, and annual cost of the tax increase per home market value ($100,00 = $13.28 and $200,00 = $26.57)

In contrast here is the exact ballot language, on the same ballot, for the creation of the Park District.

“Great Falls Park District Number 1

Shall the proposition to organize Great Falls Park District Number 1 be adopted?

(By voting yes, you support creation of Great Falls Park District Number 1 for the purpose of providing certain maintenance, purchasing and improvement services for City-owned facilities, land, and equipment under the responsibility and care of the City of Great Falls Park and Recreation Department and providing for other matters properly relating thereto.)”

That’s it. Not one word about how much it’s going to cost you, or even that it’s going to cost you, if you vote “Yes”.

Montana Code Annotated states very clearly that “…The form of the ballot must reflect the content of the resolution or charter amendment and must include a statement of the impact of the election on a home valued at $100,000 and a home valued at $200,000 in the district in terms of actual dollars in additional property taxes that would be imposed on residences with those values if the mill levy were to pass. The ballot may also include a statement of the impact of the election on homes of any other value in the district, if appropriate.”  –http://leg.mt.gov/bills/mca/title_0150/chapter_0100/part_0040/section_0250/0150-0100-0040-0250.html

It’s possible that a lawyer could argue what the meaning of the word “is” is and claim that the above MCA language only pertains to levies, technically, not to special district assessments but that seems a stretch to me since the resolution proposing Park District 1 includes the fiscal impact: “…the estimated 2018 assessment for a property with a 2017 Market Value of $100,000 would be $22.92 per year.”

But a simple, common sense reading of other applicable MCA language seems to close the door on any “assessment vs levy” loophole.

See http://leg.mt.gov/bills/mca/title_0070/chapter_0110/part_0100/section_0110/0070-0110-0100-0110.html – “(3)The election must be conducted in accordance with Title 13, chapter 1, part 5” …and http://leg.mt.gov/bills/mca/title_0130/chapter_0010/part_0050/section_0050/0130-0010-0050-0050.html(5) Unless otherwise specified by law, conduct of the election, voter registration, and how votes must be cast, counted, and canvassed for a special purpose election must be conducted in accordance with the applicable provisions of this title.

Then there’s this from the City Park & Rec website: “The cost of the proposed improvements for the district is $1.5 million annually for the first three years; …the assessment method will be based on taxable value;  The amount of the assessment can be adjusted annually and must be set by resolution and adopted by the City Commission.” (That last sentence ought to scare the poop out every Great Falls citizen.)

Here’s my question: Was the Park District 1 fiscal impact language intentionally left off the ballot in an effort to deceive voters, making it more likely they would vote “Yes”?

“Here’s my question: Was the Park District 1 fiscal impact language intentionally left off the ballot in an effort to deceive voters, making it more likely they would vote ‘yes’?”

Who’s watching out for us, the taxpayers who pay ALL the bills? Certainly not our do-nothing, failed city commissioners and mayor who should have been on top of this to make certain that the ballot language was “the whole truth”.

I have just recently learned that a local citizen has written a letter referring this issue to the Cascade County Attorney and was told that “it would take some time for them to respond”. I will keep readers informed on the progress of this development.

In the meantime we should all be writing letters and making our voices heard –  this apparent ballot sleight of hand is unacceptable and should not be allowed to stand in my opinion. I believe the appropriate course of action would be to send the issue back to the voters with the required information included on the ballot. In fact we should demand it.

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Rick Tryonhttp://www.ricktryon.com
Rick Tryon is an entrepreneur, a singer-songwriter, and is currently serving a four year term as a Great Falls City Commissioner. Helping Montana become an even greater place to live, play and work is Tryon's passion.

11 COMMENTS

  1. I voted NO on this issue BECAUSE the voting public have NO IDEA what we were getting—WHY would any one with lick of common sense vote to give the commission an open ended opportunity to raise our taxes at will. The issue must be brought back to the public with correct and complete information !

  2. To echo Mayor Winter’s post, this seemingly “carte blanche,” spend whatever we decide, language, was a clue that a yes vote meant I’d get shafted with more tax increases and not have any say so.

  3. I certainly agree that, as a matter of POLICY, it makes sense to include the fiscal ramifications on the ballot, especially where, as here, it is readily available.

    I do think, though, that the suggestion that it was somehow illegal to omit the information fails on the authority offered. (This is not my area of expertise, so I welcome any further argument about the applicability of the various statutes.)

    The first statute cited, 15-10-425, quite clearly applies to “mill levy elections.” The park district, on the other hand, is going to be funded by annual assessments. Further, the ballot was on the question of whether to CREATE the park district. The annual assessments will be made by the City Commission.

    The next two sections cited (7-11-1011 and 13-1-505) seem to me to be inapposite, as neither appear to require specific types of information on the ballot.

    It’s not the meaning of “is” or a technicality to find that a statute that applies to mill levy elections ONLY applies to mill levy elections. That’s how the law works—words have meanings. If we approached it any other way, no one could ever know what the law IS. (Ooops!) For example, if there were a law requiring a particular disclosure in a residential lease, we would not fault a commercial landlord for omitting it, would we?

    So, I think this LEGAL argument is misplaced. Again, as a matter of policy, why not make that information more widely known? (I think we know why…)

    This is not an area of my expertise, so I welcome anyone with more knowledge to weigh in.

    I think E-City Beat is an important source of alternative news in this community, and I think the more credibility it has the better.

  4. Gregg you are absolutely correct that as a policy matter there’s no question that the fiscal impact information should have and could have been included.

    And you may be correct that, as a legal matter, leaving that language out is technically permissible. The reason I mentioned the “assessment versus levy” argument is because it seems to me to be a difference without much of a distinction and I couldn’t find anything in my admittedly cursory search of the MCA that makes that distinction clear.

    At any rate the main reason I raise the issue is because the public needs to be aware of what went on here. I believe that the county attorney at the very least should take a look at it. Maybe a judge needs to weigh in on whether or not fiscal impact information should have been included in this ballot language.

    Would you agree that it’s worth a challenge?

  5. A side from the legal end of the discussion , which of course could go either way, the point of contention was and still is why in the world would a community give a commission the pleasure of an open ended package of perhaps down the road a tad, to raise our taxes as needed !! The correct and accurate information should have been stated on the ballot and only those who pay property taxes and own property within the city should have a vote !this was not a good issue from the very beginning brought forth by well intentions. It needs another go around.Course I stand to be corrected if I am outside the line.

  6. To further my point of view —leaving the annual assessment determination up to the city commission is an open door to continue poor management practices. It is like having the coyote watch the hen house, and you have never seen a coyote that doesn’t look like he is smiling !

  7. I think an assessment is a one-time thing (to be repeated annually) whereas a mill levy is permanent.

    I do not think it is worth a legal challenge, at least not from what I have seen so far. I have not seen any legal requirement that the financial impact be included on the ballot and, without some requirement, what would we sue them for?

  8. Gregg, I believe you are right no legal challenge necessary –It is the idea and intent that concerns me– after three years there will be a new need for more revenue from the citizens, as we age as a community we become more a retirement community living on fixed income and as spendable income diminishes who then will left to pay increased taxes?

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