Flathead Basin Commission Shutdown, break with DNRC could lie ahead

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Whitecaps crash into the eastern shore of Flathead Lake near Woods Bay on Nov. 13. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

The agency coordinating Northwest Montana’s response to invasive species could soon have to shut down operations.

On Tuesday, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation director John Tubbs wrote that “state appropriations for the Flathead Basin Commission will be eliminated,” according to an email shared with the Daily Inter Lake.

Tubbs aims to discuss next steps in a Nov. 27 conference call. “My intent,” he wrote, “is to discuss a plan to shut down FBC operations or for FBC to demonstrate how they will continue to pay for operations that, today, are being funded through state appropriations.”

In a phone call, Tubbs told the Inter Lake that at the beginning of this fiscal year, the Basin Commission had been appropriated about $149,000 through the state’s Conservation and Resource Development Division. At the end of October, it had roughly $107,000 left.

When those funds run out, the Commission will have to either stop operations or raise money elsewhere.

Tubbs explained that, if a shutdown occurred, “they can still meet, they would still be in statute, it’s just [that] the staffing resources would be reduced.” He’s maintaining a $10,000 fund to pay members’ travel expenses and allow them to meet.

On Wednesday morning, Tubbs said he was still awaiting more information. “The Commission is in the position of having to explain how they can proceed [without state funds] or how they can shut it down.”

So far, he added, “they have not provided that information.”

Caryn Miske, the Commission’s executive director and its only salaried employee, told the Daily Inter Lake that “we haven’t had much communication from DNRC either.”

The Commission’s existence is guaranteed by a 1983 law. But Miske warned that without operational funding, “the Basin Commission becomes a group that meets, talks and doesn’t do much.”

She estimated that the remaining appropriations could keep the group running for four or five months. Between the end of those months and the possible re-appropriation of funds by the Legislature in 2019, “there’s going be a year when we’re on our own.”

To pay Miske’s salary and sustain the group during that year, some Commission members have offered to kick in funds, she told the Inter Lake. They may seek grants to fund some of its field operations, like dog inspection stations. And local lawmakers are also pledging to help.

State Sen. Bob Keenan, R–Bigfork, told the Inter Lake last week that Northwest Montana legislators are “going to do everything we can to raise money to backfill the cuts to the FBC.”

“I do need to give kudos to the legislators,” Miske told the Inter Lake Wednesday. “They’re trying to do everything they can to ensure our survival.”

Meanwhile, Miske’s questioning whether the Flathead Basin Commission still belongs with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Currently, the two are attached “for administrative purposes only.” That means 12.05 percent of the Commission’s revenue goes to the department to pay administrative costs, Tubbs explained.

To pay less overhead, the Commission may “sever the chain of administrative attachment” with the department, Miske said. “The FBC will continue to function as an organization, but...the substantive work of the FBC can still be done under someone else’s umbrella.”

She named the Lake County government or the Flathead Community Foundation as possible future homes.

It would remain a state agency, but might have to pay less for administration. It would also be outside the department that eliminated FBC funding to cut its budget, a move Miske cast as “penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

“Now, all he can do is step back,” she said, referring to Tubbs. “Now it’s up to the Commission to decide how to proceed.”

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

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