Tax goof adds up to nearly $1 million

Troy district has been overcharging people for 15 years

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TROY — The agency that acts as the central hub for emergency calls in Troy collected nearly $1 million more in taxes than it was supposed to during the past 15 years.

Lincoln County and district officials blame the overtaxing on a budgeting oversight.

Troy Area Dispatch District levied more property-tax mills than taxpayers within its jurisdiction had approved during 12 of the past 15 years, according to public documents obtained by The Western News. That means taxpayers overpaid $986,000.

The agency surpassed its taxing authority by $320,460 this fiscal year alone when it levied 56.86 mills instead of the 20 mills voters had authorized.

“This is a combination of errors between the dispatch board, the commissioners and the Clerk and Recorder’s Office,” Lincoln County Clerk Tammy Lauer said. “Apparently, the [dispatch] board did not know it was limited to 20 mills a year.”

Troy Dispatch Board Chairman Gene Rogers alerted The Western News to the excessive taxation on Tuesday.  

In 2000, voters elected to make Troy Area Dispatch District a 24-hour service and raise the district’s appropriated mill level to 20, up from the 7 mills established when the district was formed in 1996.

In 1999, dispatch went over its mill limit and raised $2,398.17 in excess taxes. In 2000, dispatch exceeded its limit by 2.5 mills, raising $12,132.50 more than authorized.

More mills were levied each year until 2003 when the mill levy dropped to 19.8 mills. It remained at 19.8 until 2006 when dispatch went over its limit by 5.25 mills and collected excessive taxes of $31,317.20.

The problem continued to grow each year since then.

“It upsets me,” said Ron Downey, the Lincoln County commissioner from Troy. “How can this happen that long without someone picking up on it?”

Rogers said he plans to reduce the number of mills collected by dispatch next year. He proposed reducing the taxing level to 10 mills.

“There’s no sense in having money we don’t need,” Rogers said.

Reducing the taxpayer burden by 10 mills would result in a collective savings of $86,940.  

Rogers said he assumes the county commissioners will deduct dispatch’s cash on hand from the previous year’s budget when crafting a new budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1. The district’s fiscal 2012-13 budget showed a balance of $229,021.

“The Troy Area Dispatch District taxpayers paid too much,” Lauer said. “Dispatch should be able to survive three years on this year’s budget. I would take only one mill for the next three years just to stay on the tax records.”

Lauer said the dramatic increase in mills was the result of a formula on a spreadsheet that tallies taxes that should be levied each year based on changes in property values and the number of taxpayers who live within a dispatch district’s boundaries. While the calculations determining tax revenue were done correctly, nobody noticed that, despite what the spreadsheet says, Troy Area Dispatch District was supposed to levy only 20 mills each year, she said.

“We had no clue it was 20,” Rogers said. “When I looked at it this year, I said, ‘Wait a minute.’”

Rogers, a member of the Troy Area Dispatch Board for more than 10 years, said the board was unaware of the voter-approved limit even during the three-year period when dispatch accepted just under 20 mills.

“I also know there is no way we can operate on 20 mills,” Rogers said. “It takes us about $230,000 to $250,000 to run every year with labor, insurance and upkeep.”

According to county documents, the dispatch district’s fiscal 2013-14 budget was $775,241, about $140,000 more than fiscal 2012-13. In the current budget, more than 40 percent comes from excessive tax revenue.

In 2011, dispatch began a renovation project that is nearing completion. Rogers estimated $100,000 from the overdrawn taxpayer money went toward the project.

In the current budget, $524,891 is attributed to capital improvements. Last year’s budget accounts for $401,949 in capital improvements. A total of $180,000 went to wages this year.

“I looked at this and thought, “Oh, shoot,’” Rogers said. “I pay taxes like everyone else.”

One of those other taxpayers is Hank La Sala. Sitting down to review his annual tax bill, La Sala noticed something unusual: Of all the public bodies to which he paid taxes this year, Troy Area Dispatch District received the second-most, behind only the Troy School District.

“That ticked me off,” La Sala said, so he looked into it. “What I found is almost criminal. We need a serious audit.”

Since learning about the oversight, Lauer’s office has started reviewing all county districts for possible taxing restrictions.

Johnson is a reporter for the Western News in Libby.

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