The Teton County commissioners on Aug. 29 opened the preliminary 2019-20 budget for public comment. This budget would decrease property taxes slightly on all property owners within the county and the cities of Choteau, Fairfield and Dutton.

The draft budget proposes levying 116.58 countywide mills, compared to 117.77 last year, or 1.19 less.

Taxes are also going down slightly for property owners who pay taxes for county road maintenance — those outside the three municipalities. Last year, the county levied 27.29 mills for county road maintenance, and this year, it plans to levy 26.47 mills, which includes a special two-mill emergency levy to help fund repairs to county roads and bridges from flooding this spring.

Property taxes are computed by multiplying mills by one’s property valuation.

The commissioners are proposing to spend about $5.51 million for most county services, compared $5.33 million last year; the road budget would increase from $1,128,115 to $1,187,442, and the special services budget would increase from $816,442 to $885,074

The value of a county mill rose slightly from $21,161 last year to $22,304 this year, increasing the amount of money local government can raise from one mill of property taxes. The increase in the mill value is the result of new construction in the county and of the state Department of Revenue’s reappraisal of real property, which generally increased the values the state assigns to people’s homes, businesses and land.

The county budget is funded through property taxes, cash carry-over from the previous budget year, and various state and federal funds. The state caps how much a county can raise local property taxes without a vote at just one half of the rate of inflation — about .8 percent this year.

No one attended the budget hearing last week to give comment, but the commissioners and Clerk and Recorder Paula Jaconetty said the proposed budget is conservative and aims to provide the essential services within the budget caps.

“We are so, so fortunate to have department heads who are so frugal,” Jaconetty said, adding that she department heads had about $300,000 left in unspent cash at the end of last fiscal year, June 30, and that is being reappropriated to help keep property taxes down.

Commissioner Joe Dellwo said the proposed budget includes funding for two new vehicles for the Sheriff’s Office but none for the Road Department this year. The proposed budget also does not include funding for the yet-to-be-hired road superintendent, a new administrative position for the Road Department.

Dellwo said the commissioners think the new superintendent will save the department nearly as much money as the proposed salary, $50,000 to $55,000.

Jaconetty also noted that the county’s health insurance costs went down about $10 per month per covered person. The county pays the monthly health insurance premium for the basic medical plan for all enrolled employees. The premium cost went down from $561 per month per employee to about $551 per month per employee in the new fiscal year.

The county’s property and casualty insurance did increase, she said, but not because of the losses at the Road Department, which included a fire inside the shop, a fire outside the shop and a bulldozer that was lost in the flood while working on the Teton River.

Last year the county budgeted 98.29 mills for all regular or general county services, just under the cap allowed by state funding formula, according to computations by Jaconetty. This year the county is budgeting 95.72 mills for the same services and is right at the cap.

The county is proposing to budget 18.86 mills (compared to 19.48 last year) for “special services” that do not fall under the cap because they are funded by permissive levies (voter approval not required) or levies that voters have approved in the past. The permissive levies help fund the Teton County Council on Aging, the County/Montana State University Extension Service, joint city-county libraries, retirement for county law enforcement employees, county health insurance and a capital improvement fund to purchase ambulances.

The small drop in the number of permissive mills is mainly due to the increase in the value of the county mill.

In addition to local property taxes, cash carry-over and various grants, the county’s revenue includes federal Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) revenue, $2,112,344 (up from $1,850,555 last year); “entitlement” revenue, the county’s share of a variety of state-levied taxes, fees and assessments; and revenue raised through the county’s local option tax on vehicle license fees.

The federal government gives Teton County PILT based on how many acres of federally managed land the county has. About one-fifth of the county is land managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.

In addition to the PILT, entitlement and local option tax revenue, the county budget also includes $3,811,228 in grants and special funds that can only be spent for specific services. For example, the county will receive $210,000 in 9-1-1 revenue that can only be spent to support the county’s emergency dispatch system, and it will receive $133,319 in state gas tax revenue that must be spent for county road maintenance.

The Teton County Health Department will receive a large amount of grant funding —$702,405 — to administer public health programs like the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program, immunization programs and cancer screening programs in Teton County and four other county health departments in the region.

This year’s proposed county budget would raise $2,657,949 in local property taxes levied on all county residents (compared to $2,492,200 last year). Rural residents (those living outside Choteau, Fairfield and Dutton) would provide $490,626 (compared to $475,037 last year) in property taxes for county road maintenance with a road mill raising $18,533, compared to $17,407 last year.

The budget includes expenses for everything from courthouse lawn and tree care to buying equipment and running the District Court, Sheriff’s Office, fire and ambulance services.

Some of the major proposed appropriations include $1.7 million for the county general fund, which pays for most of the county courthouse operations; $1.18 million for road maintenance, $1.38 million for county law enforcement services; $346,000 for county employee health insurance; $303,225 for ambulance services; $186,755 for county airport maintenance and operations; $457,600 for wildland and structure fire protection; $160,121 for District Court, $199,664 for the Teton County Health Department; $276,461 for bridge work, $203,900 for weed control, $117,335 for cemeteries, $187,420 for Extension Services and $163,349 for joint city-county libraries in Choteau, Dutton and Power.

Ten departments also have capital project funds, totaling $444,032. These funds operate as savings accounts for major expenses such as new ambulances, communications equipment and improvements that may be needed by general fund services (in the courthouse).

The slight growth in the county budget is mainly attributable to increased costs for insurance and utilities and the wage increases of $.50 an hour for county employees and a 5% raise for elected officials.

The hearing on the budget will remain open until the commissioners’ Sept. 5 meeting, when they are slated to adopt the final budget, which will be retroactive to July 1.