Opinion & Editorial
Historic tax reform could become reality
by Rep. Bob Lake, HD 88, Hamilton
In all my years following the Montana legislature, I can't think of a single session where taxpayers had so much to gain. Already in the House we've passed a group of bills that will save Montanans hundreds of millions each year. Due to the huge revenue surplus in our state coffers, we're able to provide this tax relief and at the same time increase state spending in critical areas.
The message that I've heard from my constituents, and it's a message that I know resounds around the state, is that property taxes are too high. We're responding to that call by giving the biggest tax cuts to Montana homeowners. Under our plan, no group benefits more than people who own their own homes.
But we didn't stop there. We know that the best way to encourage economic growth is to put money back into your pockets so you can reinvest in your business or in your community. Here's a breakdown of some of the tax legislation that we passed during the first half of the legislature. Each Montana homeowner is guaranteed $400 in tax relief through the combination property tax cut and income tax credit in HB 678. Unlike the Democrat rebate plan, our property tax cut does not sunset after one year. We're also providing a tax credit for renters in HB 345. Overall, the property tax cuts will save taxpayers $279 million over the next two years.
Second, we're addressing the problem of high health care costs by giving tax credits to help offset out-of-pocket expenses for individuals. We're also giving a tax credit to Montana small businesses who provide health care to their employees. The total tax relief in our health care package, HB 270, is approximately $100 million over the biennium.
One of the reasons that the state has such a large revenue surplus is that individual income tax collections have skyrocketed over the last couple of years. We think that that money is better spent by you than it is by government, so we've passed an income tax cut in HB 564 totaling $55 million over the biennium.
And finally, we recognize that small business is the backbone of the Montana economy, so we've passed legislation, HB 529, to lower the tax on business equipment and to exempt the first $100,000 in equipment value from being taxed at all. We wrote this bill in such a way that smaller businesses benefit more than large businesses because over 80 percent of the Montana workforce is employed by small business. Our business equipment tax cut totals $44 million over the first two years.
There you have it; a total of over $600 million in tax relief over the next two years, with nearly all of that relief going directly to Montana families and small business.
But wait, didn't you hear that all we're doing is giving big tax breaks to out-of-state corporations? That's simply not true. The people that are opposed to our tax relief plan merely want all tax relief bills to die. That would result in a $600 million boost to state government - I'd rather see a $600 million boost to the state economy.
Letters to the Editor
Senator Laible has 'crossed the line'
At least 14 land developers are suing Ravalli County for monetary damages resulting from delays in approving their subdivisions - more may be joining the suit in the future. If they succeed in court, the financial implications to our county may be enormous - Ravalli County could even go bankrupt because of this despicable behavior.
The following is the Montana State law provision that allows these developers to bring this suit against we the people, of Ravalli County:
Section 14. Section 76-3-625, MCA, is amended to read: "76-3-625. Violations - actions against governing body. (1) A person who has filed with the governing body an application for a subdivision under this chapter may bring an action in district court to sue the governing body to recover actual damages caused by a final action, decision, or order of the governing body or a regulation adopted pursuant to this chapter that is arbitrary or capricious. (2) A party identified in subsection (3) who is aggrieved by a decision of the governing body to approve, conditionally approve, or deny a preliminary plat for a proposed subdivision."
And just what elected official would have the audacity to put the people of Montana and Ravalli County in such serious jeopardy? None other than our own Senator Rick Laible! That's right - Mr. Laible not only sponsored this bill, but he successfully manipulated the passage of this bill to its conclusion on April 19, 2005.
Prior to April of 2005, these lawsuits would not have been possible. The Constitution(s) of the United States and Montana have never provided for this kind of aggressive, heavy-handed, manipulation of local government. It is only because of this new State law that these greedy, money-grubbers have been presented with this "privilege" of ravaging the citizens of Ravalli County and our tax coffers, on a "silver platter."
It is very doubtful that Senator Laible's political allies in this county, including our current sitting Commissioners, were unaware of this devious effort to circumvent local control over development, and were probably serious supporters of his bill. Commissioners Lyons, Thompson and Chilcott have many times stated their support for private developers and have made their fanatic philosophy on "private property rights" well-known; they have also eviscerated our County Growth Policy by inserting private property rights provisions throughout every section of the document. Mr. Laible currently has a large number of senate bills that he is sponsoring that will make this situation even worse - very few people are aware of this.
Fred Thomas was finally held accountable for his major role in the deregulation of Montana Power, which resulted in devastating, irreversible impacts to all Montanans. He has now shown his disdain for us by leading the charge to sell us out to his developer-buddies.
Mr. Laible, our sitting Commissioners, and many other local officials need to be accountable now, before they manage to devastate our local government and property tax accounts - the future of our county is in the balance!
I will repeat my previously stated assertion, that there is a contingent of our own elected officials, at the State, County and Municipal levels, that are working behind the scenes to circumvent the will of the citizens and to betray the very people who they represent and who elected them to their prestigious positions of power. It would be naive to think that the future "pay-off" to these elected officials has not already been laid on the table - just take a look at our previous Commissioner, who just resigned, and is now enjoying her "golden parachute" with Coldwell Properties, right now! Many others, including Dallas Erickson, are also in this "pot-of-peas" (with his Wal-Mart $160,000 war chest), and this murky soup gets more odiferous with each passing day.
These people need to be held accountable now, and it is absolutely urgent that you know this and move to remove these corruptible individuals from office - their friends in State, County and municipal law enforcement have made it very clear that they have no intentions of prosecuting these flagrant lawbreakers.
Developers have made their desires clear - they will force us to accept their massive building plans and will stop at nothing to make their millions or billions, at our expense. They have the resources, the motivation and protection from legal prosecution - our only recourse is to remove them from office. Time is of the essence!
Please join with those of us trying to break this cycle of corruption and criminal behavior, today. There are many avenues open to you. Go to www.savethebitterroot.com and we will help direct you to the appropriate organization.
We are holding a town hall meeting at the Hamilton Bedford Building at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, March 21 - be there, please! You will hear more about that, later.
Ten reasons not to sign Obscenity Ordinance Petition
1) The proposed obscenity ordinance is obsolete. Anyone who wants pornography can get it through the Internet or even on their cell phone. The only way to keep pornography out of Ravalli County would be to regularly send law enforcement officers from house to house to search everyone's computer and cell phone.
2) Since the obscenity ordinance would make the distribution of obscene materials to "anyone" illegal, someone who forwards an improper email or cell phone photo would be subject to a $500 fine, six months in jail, or both.
3) The obscenity ordinance is un-American. Remember when our presidents used to proudly proclaim that America was the freest country in the world? That claim can no longer be made with honesty. Every time we Americans give up another freedom to people like Erickson, we move closer to a tyrannical society.
4) The obscenity ordinance is against free enterprise, because it denies legitimate businesses the right to sell the product of their choice. Should free enterprise only be available for Wal-Mart and other businesses that pass Erickson's moral smell test?
5) The Taliban and other radical-right groups - who believe women should be covered from head to toe - would approve of Erickson's ordinance. As George W. Bush often says, "They hate us for our freedom." Signing the obscenity ordinance petition sends the terrorists a little love.
6) The Bible has a lot sex in it, and much of it is quite kinky. For instance, in Ezekiel 23:11-20 you can read about prostitution and men with penises the size of donkeys who ejaculate like horses. The obscenity ordinance specifically mentions "obscene writing." While the distribution of Bibles would likely be unaffected, as the book would be "taken as a whole," distributing shorter documents that quote sexually oriented scriptures would likely be within the grasp of the ordinance. Should anyone have to worry about the legality of what they quote from the Bible?
7) Erickson's reasoning that "porn causes rape" (the exact wording of a sign he carried at a protest) is flawed. People using his same logic must also say that "the Bible causes war," "Catholicism causes child molestation," and "guns cause murder."
8) Pornography can actually prevent rapes from occurring. It's simple biology: men who view sexually-oriented materials often relieve themselves before they finish. Once the act is completed, sexual desire drops significantly.
9) The obscenity ordinance could cost you money. If 7195 or more people sign Erickson's petition, a special election will be held. Taxpayers will have to pay for that election. Defending and enforcing the ordinance will also require money and human resources.
10) You don't have to like pornography to protect the right of others to view it. The next time someone puts their version of morality to a vote, they may be trying to take away the very right you cherish the most.
More problems with Hamilton finances
As we continue with our reporting of the Hamilton Treasury and Finances, this is the final report on the salaries of Hamilton workers. Not included here are fringe benefits that cost us an additional 30-35% more. It was also revealed to us last month that no one in city government is required to accurately account for their time via time cards, time clocks, or project worksheets.
In case you were not aware of this, Hamilton parks (Hieronymous, Legion, River, Driscoll and Kiwanis) are technically "closed" from October to April every year. They are staffed by a Parks Director, a full-time worker and two seasonal employees, who split their time between the parks and the cemetery. They also have never been required to account for their time during the winter, when the parks are closed. All expenses for the Parks Department are expected to total nearly $102,000 this year or nearly $17,000 per month for the six or so months they are open. We did not see any revenue budgeted to the parks this year except for the $550 annual league payments on the baseball park. With park maintenance costing such an exorbitant amount every year, we have repeatedly recommended that an outside contractor handle this. It would save a bundle for the taxpayers.
This same staff also handles the cemetery on a half-time basis with the parks in the spring and summer, and probably full-time during the winter. The total cost budgeted for cemetery services is $98,948 this year. Ravalli County chips in a measly $6,900 per year, and sales of plots, headstones, and opening/closing of graves, etc. are only expected to be about $63,000 in 2007. Simple mathematics shows you that taxpayers will be paying over $29K in taxes to maintain the cemetery. We have been paying this for years. Our opinion on this is that the cemetery should be able to pay for itself, without assistance from the taxpayers. In case you are wondering, the Parks/Cemetery Director earned nearly $47,000 last year, and his full-time worker earned nearly $30,000. Everybody would save money if a part-time sextant and groundskeeper maintained the cemetery.
The Hamilton Legal Department is staffed by an attorney and a legal secretary. Their salaries total $73,200 for this next year. Unlike the City Court (which is expected to produce $159,000 in revenue) the legal department is funded completely by property taxes. Their budget for this year is $166,749, or 23 mills on your tax bill. We looked back into some old Hamilton budgets, and found that in the year 2000, the legal department, under Jim Haynes, only cost the taxpayers $43,932. Expenses for legal services have increased nearly 400% in just seven years.
What is disturbing about this is the fact that the attorney in charge of the legal department is not the bona fide "city attorney," according to the statutes. He is a "regular employee" of the city, and serves at the pleasure of the mayor. A true "city attorney" cannot hold an employment contract. A true "city attorney" must be appointed by the mayor with the consent of the city council for a two-year term. This was never done. A true city attorney works for the citizens.
Only a "prosecutor" is empowered to carry out criminal proceedings. "Prosecutor" means an elected or appointed attorney who is vested by law to carry out criminal proceedings on behalf of the city. Only the true "city attorney" can prosecute in the City Court. The mayor has a positive statutory duty to appoint a legal "city attorney" to prosecute violators in the City Court, and to give legal opinions when requested. Instead, a regular employee, hired in January 2003, under an employment contract, is performing these functions. Both of these individuals know, or should have known, that the employment contract does not conform to Montana law.
One more note on the Elected Treasurer issue. This so called "straw poll" being pushed by the mayor and certain councilors is outside the realm of power granted to cities such as Hamilton. There is no statutory basis for conducting such a poll. There is no legal precedent. There is no legal authority granted to cities to use public funds for such an exercise. Both Hamilton and Ravalli County have "General Powers," which means that they can only do things that the statutes allow them to do. There is no statute allowing a "straw vote." The city council and mayor have been told by Election Administration that only "private" money can be used to conduct the poll, which means that they need to write a personal check for whatever costs result, including for the time spent by the Legal Department. The mayor has overstepped her authority on this one.
One of the basic tenants of democracy is the operation of the government according to the "rule of law." Any government agency that knowingly implements practices that consistently violate the law is operating beyond the bounds of the Constitution, and will ultimately lose its legitimacy to govern.
Bob Frost, Dave Snell, Ellen Prosser, Lorraine Crotty
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