Originally published in the 9/8/17 print edition of Yellowstone County News.
BILLINGS — Pointing out that Yellowstone County’s 2017-18 budget is only “sustainable” if the proposed Safety Mill Levy passes, County Commissioner Denis Pitman refused to second a motion to pass it. But, then he said he would vote for it, but he wants the public to understand that it may be necessary to develop a more austere budget if “things don’t turn out.”
County Commissioners went forward then, on Tuesday, to unanimously approve the county’s over $94 million budget for the coming year, following two public hearings, this week and last. The budget is a 6.3 percent increase over FY 2017’s budget.
Pitman warned that without the passing of the proposed Safety Mill Levy, they will reach a point between two and five years from now “where we are out of money.” The current budget, said Pitman, places the county in a “reactive” position, and he would rather that they be “pro-active.” He said he would be dedicating himself to getting the Safety Mill Levy passed.
Because of the tight budget, during last week’s hearing, Pitman proposed an amendment which would have set a new county policy to cease contributing funds to private non-profit organizations. And, also because, said Pitman, he has never been comfortable with donating taxpayer money to private organizations. His motion failed for the lack of a second.
The policy would have impacted the county’s PILT (Payment in Lieu of Taxes) fund, which is money the federal government pays to the county in lieu of paying taxes on federal lands in the county. Pitman said he wanted PILT money to be used as a “rainy day” fund, but County Commissioner John Ostlund said that is essentially how it has historically been used.
Ostlund said that he favored supporting some organizations because they perform public services that would otherwise fall to the county.
The county received $203,000 in PILT funding this year, giving it a balance of $392,900. Appropriations from the fund have normally been used for shoring up specific department shortfalls and to cover unanticipated expenses, as well as supporting requests for assistance from both public and private entities. For example, they have in the past made donations to projects like building the Shepherd Community center or to help the Heights Water District hire a consultant to design a system to prevent flooding. But they have also supported entities like the Moss Mansion, or civic organizations such as Family Services, to whom they are committing $5,000 a year for the next three years, as that organization refurbishes a new facility.
Included in the budget from PILT funding this year are donations such as $500 for the County Spelling Bee; bike trail maintenance of $20,000; and support for a NILE agriculture education program for fourth graders, a planning department review of its structure, and assistance to Garfield County, which could not meet its extraordinary costs of fighting wild fires.
Also, coming from the PILT funds this year will be $18,000 to continue an effort begun several years ago to place headstones on graves in the county’s cemetery for indigent people, Riverside – a project which Pitman also questioned as to whether the county could afford to continue. They are not a critical need, he said.
Former County Commissioner Jim Reno, who as commissioner launched the … Read full story in print edition or by subscribing here.