Flathead Basin Commission faces big budget cut

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Sunset on the Lake David Gibson of Lexington, Ky., enjoys a sunset kayak tour around the north part of Flathead Lake with Brian "BJ" Johnson and Joli Hailey of Sea Me Paddle Kayaking Tours out of Lakeside, on Sunday, June 23 near Somers. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

The prospect of state budget cuts cast a shadow over Wednesday’s Flathead Basin Commission meeting at Hungry Horse’s Glacier View Ranger Station.

The group, which brings together residents, environmental groups, and local, state, tribal and federal employees, coordinates efforts to protect the Flathead Basin’s waters. These projects, including aquatic invasive species mitigation, faced a new challenge in August, when falling state tax revenue and rising firefighting costs prompted the Bullock administration to request a 10 percent budget cut from most state agencies.

To meet that goal, the state Department of Natural Resources proposed cutting 90 percent of the Flathead Basin Commission budget. That could leave it unable to pay the salary of Caryn Miske, its executive director.

“I think we can take a cut, but a cut that is so draconian that we cannot exist is not fair,” said Jan Metzmaker, Whitefish resident and former director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitor Bureau.

The DNRC, along with other state agencies, will have the chance to make their case for certain programs to be spared at a hearing before the Legislative Finance Committee Oct. 4 and 5. But Kathy Olsen, manager of DNRC’s Kalispell Regional Water Office and another member of the commission, warned that Flathead Basin Commission’s dilemma was hardly unique. She described her office’s post-cut budget as “bare bones enough to leave the lights on.”

“What kind of staff do I preserve?” she asked. “As a state agency, we are all in that boat.”

Miske also voiced concerns, describing DNRC’s proposal as “more than just a mere recommendation.” At this point in the budget process, she said, “this has a freight train behind it.”

If the state doesn’t fund the commission’s staffing expenses, the group could also turn to private philanthropy to pay Miske. But asking a private foundation to pay an individual’s salary, she warned, could be a tough sell.

The proposed cuts haven’t deterred the Flathead Basin Commission from carrying out its mission. For the moment, the commission is assuming that it will continue to exist in its current configuration, and it devoted the vast majority of its meeting discussing how to minimize the spread of invasive species, such as zebra mussels.

But funding constraints could also hinder these efforts. As members discussed proposals to keep invasive plants and mussels from lake-hopping on seaplanes, Miske told them, “I need to make sure we’re injecting an element of what we can reasonably accommodate with the funding we currently have.”

Reporter Patrick Reilly can be reached at preilly@dailyinterlake.com, or at (406)758-4407

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