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Crime takes a bite out of Ravalli County budget


Crime does pay, it turns out. It pays the salaries, that is, of judges, police officers, law clerks, bailiffs, public defenders, prosecutors, secretaries, dispatchers—the entire support system for the criminal justice system.

As always, crime is taking a big bite out of tax revenues in Ravalli County, where in the last two weeks the board of county commissioners heard requests for more money from department heads in the annual series of budget hearings, or the dog and pony show, as old hands call it.

Sheriff Perry Johnson is asking for almost a half million dollars more to run his department. Last year the sheriff’s office lost a reliable source of revenue when Missoula County opened its new jail and siphoned off federal prisoners who were being held at the Ravalli County jail awaiting transport to federal prisons. This year, he wants almost $600,000 more to augment his nearly $3 million budget.

The state hired two new highway patrol officers for Ravalli County last year and will add another later this year. Though their salaries are paid by the state, it will be the county that will pick up the associated costs of more patrols along Ravalli County’s roads and highways. More tickets also means more paperwork and more justice court employees to process it.

The Montana Legislature also appropriated more state funds for a second district court judge in Ravalli County. Again, though the state pays the judge’s salary, the county picks up the related costs of remodeling the courthouse to make room for a second judge. “I hope it’s not more than $400,000,” says Commission Chairman Allan Thompson, “but it could be.”

The crime victims advocate position also may go from part-time to full-time, which means another $25,000 will have to be found to fund that job and the office costs. Each year at this time, elected officials and other department heads parade before the board with hands out, looking for more tax dollars to run the state’s fastest-growing county.

Aside from being the fastest-growing county, Ravalli County is also the loudest complaining county in the state when it comes to paying taxes. It’s the birthplace of the 1980s movement to abolish the property tax, which was unsuccessful. Citizens might be surprised to learn that of the $17.8 million it cost last year to run Ravalli County, only $4 million was raised through local property taxes. The rest comes from grants, fees, fines and gambling proceeds.

The good news, though, is that those 20,000 square-foot homes at the high-dollar Stock Farm development east of Hamilton are finally beginning to yield some tax revenue. Says Commissioner Jack Atthowe, “This is the first (property tax money) we’re getting from the Stock Farm.”


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