Agreements between Jefferson County and some areas within the county to provide elevated levels of road maintenance and improvements are illegal in that they split costs between the county and the homeowners, county leaders say—and homeowners in those areas are upset that the agreements could change.
While reviewing the county's rural maintenance districts, County Planner LaDana Hintz said, the county discovered that it is illegally splitting the cost of road maintenance with the Big Dipper Rural Maintenance District. According to state law, the county and the RMD cannot split the cost of maintenance; one entity or the other must pay the total cost. Commissioner Cory Kirsch said in an interview that there are "four or five" other RMDs that have similar illegal agreements, and the county plans to "chip away" at them "one at a time." Commissioner Bob Mullen said at an Aug. 17 public hearing that most of the other districts had similar deals as with Big Dipper Drive, in Montana City, where the homeowners pay for physical materials and the county pays for the rest of the road maintenance—namely equipment and labor.
"You are getting into the proverbial can of weeds with that," County Attorney Steve Haddon said at the Aug. 17 public hearing, referring to the dynamics of various RMD agreements.
Rural maintenance districts are areas within a county where homeowners agree to pay an extra fee to the county to fund road improvements or maintenance, on only their roads, that goes beyond what the county normally provides.
Jefferson County Commissioners held a public hearing at their Aug. 3 and 17 meetings to address the agreement the county made with Big Dipper Rural Maintenance District.
Resolution 17-2007—passed in 2007 and signed by current County Commission Chair Leonard Wortman and past commissioners Dave Kirsch and then-Chair Tom Lythgoe—stated that the county will cover the cost of "labor, equipment, and any other non-materials" for Big Dipper, and that the residents would reimburse the county for the cost of the road maintenance materials. However, Hintz said at the Aug. 3 public hearing, state law requires either the county or the homeowners to pay for road maintenance in its entirety, and it was therefore illegal to take this hybrid approach.
Haddon said that Big Dipper is governed by two resolutions passed in 2007—one establishing the road maintenance district, and the other affirming that the county would cover the cost of maintenance, except for that of materials, which would have to be paid for by Big Dipper homeowners. But, he said, a 1997 addition to a state statute necessitated that either the county or homeowners pay for the entire cost of maintenance.
"It's all in or all out," Kirsch said in an interview, "if you do an RMD, homeowners have to cover all the maintenance."
Mullen said at the hearing that the situation was a "mess," but "in a lot of ways, a deal's a deal in Montana," referring to the deals the commission forged with Big Dipper and other homeowners. Kirsch added that, generally, RMDs are established if homeowners are unsatisfied with the county's standard level of road maintenance, and the past commission was likely trying to find a viable solution.
Haddon said that "the jury is still out" on his analysis of how to handle this situation going forward. He said he needed at least six weeks to do research and decide how the county should proceed, adding that he wanted to look into why the 1997 addition was made to the state law in the first place, which might give him a better idea of how to interpret the law.
Hintz said at the Aug. 3 public hearing that Big Dipper residents pay $76 per year for additional maintenance, which goes into an account that the county uses to pay for materials for the district's roads.
In a effort for compliance, commissioners proposed a resolution on Aug. 3 to have Big Dipper RMD take over the full cost of maintaining their road. Big Dipper residents expressed concern that the county was going back on its word, bringing up a 2007 letter from former Commission Chairman Lythgoe that affirmed the deal between the RMD and the county to split the cost of maintaining Big Dipper Drive.
After seeing the letter, the commissioners chose to continue the public hearing to their next meeting, when Haddon would be present, which would give the commissioners time to do research on how to handle the matter.
Hintz said that the county is supposed to review its RMDs each year and reassess the cost of maintaining the road to make sure it is collecting enough money from each district. However, she said, the county has "never done it since we've created any of the districts," until this year, and now the county is trying to "clean up stuff that's been going on."
Eleven Big Dipper residents attended the Aug. 17 public hearing. Big Dipper resident Mark Zitzka expressed concern that the county was "abandoning" their road.
"Are you stopping maintenance on all county roads?" Big Dipper resident Jim Pearson asked, wondering why Big Dipper was seemingly the only road that the county was considering ceasing maintenance of.
The commissioners said that the county was not considering abandoning the road, and reiterated that the county splitting additional maintenance costs with the Big Dipper RMD was illegal.
State law dictates that the county would have had to make a decision on RMD costs for Big Dipper by Sept. 1, Kirsch said in an interview. Therefore, the decision on how to handle Big Dipper RMD was deferred to next year, and the agreement currently in place would continue until then.
Kirsch said in the interview that after Haddon finished his research and "get[s] some answers," Kirsch planned to meet with the Big Dipper residents in order to come to an agreement. He said that the public hearing was "going in circles," and therefore the county hoped to have an "informative meeting" to let the Big Dipper residents know what Haddon determined.
"Everybody sitting there understood the [past] commissioner made a promise. He was trying to fix a problem. He just didn't notice it didn't follow the law. We want to follow through with the spirit of what the commissioner agreed to. I think we need to find some middle ground," Kirsch said.
He added that if the county cannot find a compromise, they would have to "dissolve the RMD, and it just goes back to a normal county road," where the county handles the maintenance as on any other road, and homeowners contact the county if they have an issue.