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State Considering Alternatives For Fire Prevention Fees

Montana DNRC
This chart compares alternative fire assessments fees. Currently only landowners in fire prevention districts pay a per-parcel with additional acreage fee for state services.

State lawmakers are considering expanding Montana’s fire protection fee to all landowners in the state.

Currently, landowners in the wildland urban interface, mostly in the western part of the state, pay an annual fee that funds fire prevention activities, like firefighter training, equipment purchases and maintenance, and fire detection and prevention.

The fee starts at $45 per parcel. Parcels larger than 20 acres pay an additional 27-cents per acre. That adds up to roughly $3.6 million a year.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is proposing alternatives, one of which would extend the fee to all landowners. Joe Kolman, a legislative environmental analyst, explained a couple of alternatives at the Environmental Quality Council’s meeting last Thursday.

"One of the scenarios is all parcels, so that would be all parcels," Kolman said. "That's going to be people that live in cities, people who live in Culbertson, people who live outside of Wibaux. It won’t be on the federal government. We can’t levy fees on the federal government. And then the other one is wildland parcels. Largely what that's going to do is exclude people who live in municipalities."

Expanding the parcel fee to include all landowners would mean that a roughly $3 per parcel assessment would raise about the same amount of money the state gets now, and eliminate the per acre fee for larger parcels.

Republican Senator John Brenden from Scobey, who sits on the EQC, opposed the idea.

"This by parcel thing is totally ridiculous," he said. "You can have a 40-acre parcel, and then you can have a 5,000-acre parcel. Is that equity? I don't think so."

Matt Vincent, who sits on the council as a public member from Butte, said it should consider equity in how the fee is assessed.

"We should look at it. I mean, this is something that affects us all from a health standpoint. If you start looking at the billions of dollars that go into the response on fires that are out there, I think it affects us all on a number of different levels. It's something that should at least be looked at as we look at our options for this," Vincent said.

The DNRC presented several other alternatives as potentially fairer ways to pay for fire prevention. The agency is exploring ways to raise additional funds, make up for likely losses in federal funds and increase resources committed to eastern Montana without spending additional general fund dollars.

The Environmental Quality Council took no immediate action on the DNRC’s proposed fee changes and will take up the issue at its next meeting in May.

More information about the DNRC's proposals is available here.

Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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