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Commissioners' Update: Lawsuits, building project

by Gale Decker, Lake County Commissioner
| November 9, 2023 12:00 AM

Public Law 280

Lake County’s lawsuit against the State of Montana over Public Law 280 (PL 280) jurisdiction on the Flathead Reservation is working its way through the judicial system. District Court Judge Amy Eddy rendered a summary judgment in favor of the State of Montana against Lake County on Nov. 9. The Commissioners are considering whether or not to appeal her decision to the State Supreme Court.

This law, which took effect in the 1960s, requires the County to prosecute all felonies committed on the reservation by any member of a federally recognized tribe. The costs associated with this jurisdiction have risen to the level where they are a huge drain on our overall budget.

The enactment of House Bill 656 by the 2021 Legislature required the state to reimburse the county for its costs incurred in exercising PL 280 jurisdiction on the state’s behalf. That bill, while recognizing the State’s requirement to reimburse the county, provided only one dollar in reimbursement.

The 2023 Legislature adopted House Bill 479 which provided $5 million over two years for the county, but that bill was vetoed by Governor Gianforte. The unexpected veto came after the governor had encouraged the commissioners to go to the legislature for funding. The county’s lawsuit was initiated prior to the last legislative session as a second avenue to recover costs if the legislative process failed.

Detention Center Lawsuit

In July of 2022, a class-action lawsuit was brought on behalf of some inmates confined in the Lake County jail to end an alleged systemic violation of some of their rights under Federal and State law.

Some of the alleged violations were that inmates were subjected to cruel and unusual punishment, did not have free exercise of religion, were subjected to overcrowding, and inmates had little or no opportunities to exercise. The county has denied the allegations and the judge hearing the case has dismissed several of them.

The lawsuit is now in a settlement phase and may be resolved by December. As part of the agreement, the county will provide an outside exercise area and add some additional beds to the present detention facility following completion of construction of additional Court House office space.

Court House Annex Construction

The commissioners have contracted with Swank Construction to design and build a three-story office annex just southwest of the existing Court House. The project is the first significant building project undertaken by the commissioners since the early 1990s.

The annex will provide new housing for several county departments including elections, land planning, environmental health, GIS, IT, and the Superintendent of Schools. Construction is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2024 with completion scheduled for July 2025.

95 Education Mills

The commissioners originally levied the traditional 95 education mills as requested by the Montana Department of Revenue to be included in this year’s tax bills. That action was rescinded, and the commissioners levied 77.9 mills upon the advice of the Montana Association of Counties.

In total, 47 counties levied the suggested 77.9 mills. The Montana Department of Revenue originally calculated that 77.89 mills, rather than 95, would sufficiently fund the state’s obligation to equalize funding for schools. But, claiming that MDOR had “banked” mills from previous years, the department added the “banked” mills to the 77.89 to reach the 95 mills they claimed had been levied every year previously.

If every county levied the full 95 mills an additional $79 million will be added to the state’s general fund that already has a surplus of between $600 and $700 million. This surplus would not have to be used for education.

Contrary to what Governor Gianforte and lawyers from the Montana School Board Association are expressing to the public, schools will not receive less funding from the state as those budgets have already been set.

In early October the Montana Quality Education Coalition filed suit in the Montana Supreme Court asking that the court force the counties to levy the full 95 mills. The Montana Association of Counties also filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court in late October requesting an opinion as to the number of mills the counties were obligated to levy. The court has not acted on either suit.