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Bill Calls For Eastern Montana Property Owners To Help Fund Fire Protection

Wildland Firefighters working on fire line on the West Fork Fish Creek Fire in 2015.
Wildland Firefighters working on fire line on the West Fork Fish Creek Fire in 2015.

State lawmakers Monday took up a proposal by Governor Steve Bullock to increases fees on some property owners to fund fire protection in the state. It's part of the governor's package of legislation aimed at patching the $227 million hole in the state budget.

House Bill 4 proposes freeing up $13 million in the state's general fund by asking property tax payers to take on more of the cost for state firefighting preparedness. This bill would ask property owners in eastern Montana to pay fees that people in western parts of the state already pay.

Libby Republican Senator Chas Vincent agrees with the bill conceptually, but, "One of the things that we need to keep in mind as we're looking at this policy change is that any resources that the eastern side of the state bring to the table should be resourced that they can then expect to delivered to them during a fire season. Right now, as I read this bill, this is status quo. This is bringing folks in to take $13 million off the general fund commitment."

House Bill 4 would spread firefighting preparedness costs more evenly across the state. Property owners whose land is within classified wildland outside of municipalities would pay the fees along with their property taxes. The fee amount would depend on whether their land was in a forested area, and if there is a home built on the land.

Other lawmakers worried about shifting more of the state’s firefighting costs from the general fund to landowners.

Republican Representative Kenneth Holmlund of Miles City is carrying legislation at the request of Governor Bullock. Holmlund says a amendment could be added to sunset these new fees so they can be debated at greater length in the 2019 legislative session.

Lawmakers could take an initial vote on this bill as early as Tuesday morning.

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