County officials presented their top priorities to state legislators at a breakfast meeting early this month. And, as discussion followed, issues of law and order seemed to dominate – especially issues of equity in how Yellowstone County is treated by the state.
Other issues included the county’s opposition to the local option tax proposal, a cost-savings effort regarding mail ballots, and expediting protested taxes.
High on the county’s wish list is to increase the per-diem the state pays the county for prisoners held at the Yellowstone County Detention Facility. The county was surprised during the last legislature when the rate was dropped. “They just arbitrarily reduced it,” said Ostlund.
Legislators posed numerous questions to Sheriff Mike Linder, who explained that the change is costing Yellowstone County about $125,000 annually. In essence Yellowstone County taxpayers are subsidizing the state’s detention costs. Linder explained that the rate was dropped from $72.50 to $69.00. “That may not seem like much,” said the Sheriff, “but it adds up.” He said that on average the county is holds 70-90 prisoners daily for the state.
Commissioner Jim Reno explained that a defendant is the county’s responsibility until they are adjudicated, or sentenced – at that point they become the state’s responsibility and the state is required to pay for their incarceration until they are removed from the county facility.
Deputy County Dan Schwarz commented to the group on behalf of County Attorney Scott Twito, who was unable to attend, to ask that the Yellowstone County delegation pay close attention to the funding that is provided for all the ancillary services and departments that are part of the criminal justice system, such as parole and probation officers, public defenders, etc. Inexplicably, Yellowstone County, which often has three or four times more the case load, than other counties, gets considerably less funding.
In earlier conversations with county commissioners, Twito pointed out, that with considerably fewer cases with which deal, Missoula County has more public defenders allocated than Yellowstone. Helena has more probation officers than Yellowstone County. “The legislature has allowed this to happen. Our legislators need to be aware,” said Twito.
Twito, also pointed out that Yellowstone County is often charged at a higher rate for services that it gets from the state, such as from the state crime lab – sometimes Yellowstone County is charged three times as much. The state charges Yellowstone County more for autopsies. “I want to equal out these costs,” said Twito, “We are talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars in additional costs.”
Newly-elected representative, Sue Vinton asked if the crowded jail impacts sentencing and whether the county was pursuing alternatives to putting defendants in jail.
Justice of the Peace David Carter, who is overseeing a jail diversion program that is now into its second year, explained the steps the county has taken to keep non-violent defendants out of jail while awaiting trial.
Issues relating to crime and treatment programs, said Carter, “There is a disproportionate impact on Yellowstone County.” Yellowstone County because of the services offered here that aren’t available elsewhere, and because of job opportunities, draws a disproportionate number of offenders, probationers and parolees to the community, which overwhelms available resources. “We have to pick up the disproportionate impact,” he said.
District Judge Russell Fagg commented that 50 percent of people incarcerated are drug offenders. “Jail should be for repeat and violent offenders,” he said.
To find a way to expedite future tax protests by large taxpayers is another top concern for Yellowstone County. Ostlund said that they don’t know if they can get that accomplished in this session but it is important to start the process. CHS (Cenex) is protesting their taxes again. While respecting their right to do that, Ostlund said that the process has a profound impact on all taxing authorities but especially on the schools. As it is, it is taking years to resolve the cases.
In talking to state tax advisors they are hoping that the protest process can be shortened by skipping the appeal to District Court and taking it directly to the Supreme Court from the State Tax Appeal Board. There are issues as to whether that will be determined to be legal.
Getting funding to help the county remodel the Courthouse for what is expected to be the addition of two District Court Judges and their staffs is also on the county’s list of legislative priorities. Ostlund said that the county is preparing “real numbers” for the legislature.
Ostlund also made clear that the county commissioners were opposed to a proposal that would grant communities the authority to adopt a local option tax (local sales tax). He pointed out that Yellowstone County voters rejected other proposals, such as that for expanding the jail, which would have increased taxes. The commissioners have received calls from constituents in opposition, he said, and “We have heard them loud and clear. The commissioners will not support a tax increase.
Legislators were also asked to monitor the progress of a bill to provide funding for the installation of new technology statewide for the 911 emergency operating system. An early draft of the bill would have taken a substantial chunk of funding from Billings and Yellowstone County which helps fund the local emergency call center. According to Yellowstone County Emergency Services Director Brad Shoemaker, because of input from communities across the state, the draft bill has been changed by the interim communications committee, and they will watch its progress.
NextGen 911 is a new system that will allow call centers to better identify and prioritize calls they receive, in coordination with their geographical location. It will also help the centers to dispatch responders in a more efficient manner, since the location of law enforcement and other emergence service providers will always be apparent on a “real time” GIS map.
Elections Department Director Brett Rutherford talked about the need to remove a state law that requires mail ballot voters to be notified annually by mail to remain registered as a voter. The law is “obsolete,” he said and it costs Yellowstone County $80,000 a year. About 90 percent of voters are now voting by mail. “We don’t have to re-register poll voters every year, why should we have to do so for mail ballot voters?” Rutherford said that they are notified about bad or changed addresses from the postal service.
Representative Margaret McDonald commented that there will probably be an effort to pass an increase to Montana’s gasoline tax. She said that Yellowstone County has the largest delegation in the state and they are effective when working together.
District Court Judge Greg Todd pointed out the success of the Yellowstone County delegation last session when they pushed for an addition to the state crime lab. It was said by someone in the legislature – “did you feel that earthquake?” That is what happens when the Yellowstone County delegation holds together. Todd said that he was told by a legislator from another area, “If representatives of Yellowstone County realized what they could accomplish if they worked together it would frighten everyone else in the state.” Todd said, “I hope and urge you to work together for the greater good.”

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