By Michael Howell
Last week the Ravalli County Commissioners decided to pass a levy to pay for the settlement of a lawsuit with Big Sky Development, LLC for $675,000. According to Commission Chairman Greg Chilcott, the decision was made because there was not enough money in the Reserve Fund to pay for it. The decision to institute the levy was passed on a 3-2 vote with Commissioners Jeff Burrows and Ron Stoltz voting against it.
“It was a difficult decision,” said Chilcott, “but I think the majority of the board, even some who voted against it, recognize that reducing the reserves by that amount would have repercussions countywide.” Chilcott said, given the potential for flooding this year and the always recurrent chance for a catastrophic wildfire, the county might conceivably have to borrow money to respond to those events and meet day to day operating expenses at the same time. He noted that the county always had a cash flow problem at the beginning of a new fiscal year until the first big tax payments come in around November.
“We are paying the piper now for things not done according to the law,” said Chilcott. He said he sensed the frustration from other Board members about having to take the action due to the arbitrary decision of a previous board. He said there was an incredible amount of damages being sought over 16 different counts in the lawsuit.
Chilcott said that the Commissioners had worked hard to make the county a lean operation by laying off a number of people to boost the reserves to 16%. He said that amount of reserves would allow the county to function for 59 days. He said if the money for the settlement was taken from those funds it would be reduced back to about 3.1% and cover about 11 days of operation.
“It would turn our safety net into something the size of a pillow case,” said Chilcott.
Commissioner Jeff Burrows, who voted against the levy, said that the taxpayers have been “nickeled and dimed” too much already. He said the taxes are piled on a little bit at a time and minimized by saying it’s just “the cost of a latte or a Big Mac.”
“It was not an easy decision,” said Burrows. He said he considered it a bitter pill to swallow to shrink the reserves to pay for this, but he felt like the county should “just bite the bullet on this one and take the money from the reserves.”
The levy calls for two $250,000 payments in June and August, followed by smaller payments over the next four years.