Counties angry over office closures because of state cuts
Phil Drake – Great Falls Tribune – December 6, 2018
HELENA – The Montana Department of Revenue is closing its county satellite offices in Chester and Conrad on Friday because of budget reductions in House Bill 2 and Senate Bill 261 approved in the 2017 legislative session.
And there likely will be more office closures throughout the state on the way.
For county commissioners, the decision to close the Property Assessment Division offices will cause hardship for their residents.
“It’s a sad day in this county,” said Janice Hoppes, commission chair for Pondera County.
But they aren’t the first as Property Assessment Division offices in Powell County and Granite County closed in November. The office in Hardin closed Dec. 1. The office in Judith Basin County will close Dec. 28.
And DOR Director Mike Kadas told members of the state Revenue and Transportation Interim Committee on Tuesday that it could mean that as many as another 35 Property Assessment District offices of its 56 offices could close statewide. Kadas said he would put out a roadmap next week “of our best guess of the offices closing.”
Liberty County Commissioner Larry Hendrickson said the Liberty County office in Chester, which had 1.5 employees, served as a place where people could come in and discuss their property tax bills with the Department of Revenue.
“It’s actually disgusting,” he said of the decision to close the office.
Hendrickson, the commission chair, said a lot of Liberty County residents were angry about the decision, “but we had no say.”
“What is frustrating is that the local office generates the revenue for the county and if you take people out of the area it’s harder for assessments to be done correctly,” he said.
Hendrickson said the part-time employee retired and the other employee moved to the Property Assessment District office in Havre.
The decision to close offices comes as the state is dealing with a $227 million shortfall to its $10.3 billion budget. House Bill 2 is the state spending plan and SB 261 triggers certain cuts if revenues are not met.
The regular session budget cuts to the Property Assessment Division were $3.2 million for FY 18 and FY 19. PAD’s budget is 83 personnel, DOR officials said.
Kadas said he understood the problems that these changes place on employees and communities.
“We’ve been forced to look seriously at reducing our presence,” he said. ”We’re stuck with having to look at reductions.”
He said his department has put in a hiring freeze on 60 positions to save money, has done some layoffs and may possibility have to do more.
“The whole process is creating a lot of apprehension in the department and with counties,” Kadas said.
Hoppes said there is some concern that residents who find the state offices closed come to the county clerk, recorder and commissioners for answers.
“The problem is, we don’t know,” she said.
She said Pondera County already has seen reductions.
She said the Job Service office has closed and Department of Public Health and Human Services also has gone from a fully staffed office to now only being staffed two Wednesdays a month.
“We’ve been hit over and over,” she said.
Hoppes said the closure will bring some pain.
“It hurts our citizens; they will be expected to travel to another office or call another office or go online to find their own forms,” she said.
Hoppes said there likely would be confusion.
“A lot of people in our county do not use the internet a lot to be comfortable with anything but simple tasks,” she said. “It will hurt the county because we rely on our appraiser to keep taxes current.“
She expected people to go to offices in Teton or Toole counties.
Hoppes said it was a big mistake to cut the service.
“That human contact — that is where you get results,” she said.
DOR officials said the department will move toward more electronic reporting which will provide cost savings in the materials and postage, as well as manual data entry.
More office closures are expected after the new year. Division management is meeting with employees to discuss options.
For contact information for each of the counties, visit revenue.mt.gov or call (406) 444-6900.