Lake County launches new bid to recoup law enforcement fees | 406 Politics
Lake County officials this week — through their attorneys — renewed their request for funding through the state to help fill a financial hole created by a unique law enforcement system in the Flathead Reserve, a case that could end up in court.
Since 1963, Lake County law enforcement has worked in conjunction with the Confederated and Salish Kootenai Tribes under what is known as Public Law 280. The arrangement is unique, where criminal crimes committed by Native Americans on the Flathead Reservation fall under the jurisdiction of local county law enforcement. , rather than federal law enforcement agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI.
When the agreement was signed into law almost 60 years ago, it was the agreement that was made between the State of Montana and the CSKT. But according to Lake County, which largely overlaps the Flathead Reservation, the state has never contributed to the work of local law enforcement to fund such infrastructure or exercise that jurisdiction, except for patrol. state highway, which by law is limited to crimes on the highways. .
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Today, Lake County’s costs to cover jurisdictional obligations have reached more than $4 million, according to state tax analysis. The entire county operates on a budget of $12.5 million from property taxes.
Now county officials say they’ve reached a “breaking point” and can’t keep pouring money into an “unfunded mandate” from the state’s 1963 agreement. The tribes say adequate funding for this public safety arrangement is essential to achieving its goals of ending homelessness, fostering business, and addressing mental health and addiction.
In a letter to Gov. Greg Gianforte dated Feb. 8, attorneys for Reep, Bell & Jasper, a Missoula law firm, ask the governor to sit down with Lake County and discuss options for seeing these 4 millions of dollars poured into county coffers — the letter comes with several pages of state government accounts from which the administration could draw. State fiscal analysts also announced last month that they forecast a budget surplus of up to $950 million thanks to factors including federal stimulus bills, an increase in the number of new residents and inflation. high.
The letter asks to meet with the governor within 60 days, and if there is no other choice, he can also file a lawsuit attached to the letter.
“They tried less direct methods and they weren’t successful and now you have a situation where the county just can’t continue to bear that burden and its ratepayers can’t continue to bear the burden,” Rob said. Bell, one of the lawyers. for Lake County, said Thursday. “I don’t think anyone can look at this situation and say it’s fair to the taxpayers of Lake County. It just isn’t.”
The lawsuit, Bell said, “is by no means the preferred alternative, but they just don’t have any options.”
A spokesperson for Gianforte said the governor’s office has received and is reviewing the letter.
County costs associated with Public Law 280 have affected both public safety and infrastructure.
The jail is outdated and too small for county needs. According to Sheriff Don Bell, approximately 80 people arrested on felony warrants are released each month due to lack of space in the county building’s basement jail.
County Commissioner Bill Barron said roads in the county have suffered as the county focuses its funds on public safety.
“Public safety and roads are the two most important needs right now, and they go together,” Barron said. “You need to have roads to get your emergency services where they need to be.”
Barron has worked in law enforcement at both ends of the jurisdictional framework. He was an undersheriff in Glacier County, which straddles the Blackfeet Reservation, where serious crime was handled by federal agencies that had less of a foothold with the communities they are meant to serve.
County commissioners, law enforcement and a district court judge each say the arrangement is a good thing. Local law enforcement knows the community and is hired and fired by local officials who are accountable to local voters. Conversely, if federal law enforcement had jurisdiction over the reservation, criminal cases would instead be routed through federal court in Missoula, and those convicted would most likely be sent to an out-of-state federal prison. .
Shane Morigeau, a state senator and CSKT spokesman, said Friday that the tribes also support the county’s bid for statehood.
“The Tribes and Lake County share a common goal to improve the safety and quality of life for our residents,” Morigeau said. “We all know that to achieve this goal we are bringing in additional resources from outside. We are working hard on this front and are happy to see the county exploring similar options.”
Last summer, the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribal Council set seven new priorities, including creating jobs, promoting business ownership, ending homelessness, addressing mental health and addiction, the achievement of food sovereignty and the preservation of tribal tradition and culture.
“Public safety in our homelands plays a critical role as we work to implement these bold new goals,” Morigeau told the Montana State News Bureau. “Certainly adequate resources for those working to protect our community are equally crucial.”
Lake County has tried several methods to obtain this funding. Legislation in 2017 from then-Rep. Greg Hertz, a Republican from Polson, reportedly allocated $2 million to the county for costs associated with Public Law 280, a start in the right direction. This bill died in the legislative process. Barron also said the county went to the Montana congressional delegation to find a federal solution, but it didn’t get very far.
“We are in a unique situation,” Barron said. “Passing a bill for county funding in the United States is quite difficult.”
But in 2021, Lake County finally got a possible third option: opting out of Public Law 280.
Representative Joe Read, a Republican from Ronan, introduced another bill during the 2021 Legislature to allocate funds for 280 associated costs. This bill, however, evolved during the session, moving from simply funding law enforcement needs to including a provision allowing Lake County to withdraw its jurisdictional law enforcement contributions over the Native American population, a Hertz amendment. Previously, Agreement 280 was between the tribes and the state, and while Lake County essentially took over law enforcement work, it previously had no reason to opt out.
Funding for Read’s original proposal was reduced from $2 million to $1, dropping any attempt to reimburse Lake County for law enforcement costs.
“We need this option to allow Lake County ratepayers to opt out of this deal if we can’t get help,” Hertz told the Senate Judiciary Committee last April.
If Lake County were to be kicked out of Public Law 280, the state, in theory, would be obligated to develop a greater law enforcement infrastructure there to investigate and arrest felony crimes, build its own jail, and house its own prosecutors. But that kind of transfer wouldn’t happen overnight, so this option leaves Lake County in a catch-22: continue to fund a state criminal justice obligation, or stop fulfilling that obligation and suffer the “law enforcement chaos” in the county.
Again, Barron says, the county would rather stay engaged with Public Law 280 than leave a vacuum in law enforcement departments until the state can install law enforcement on the ground.
“They should bear the cost and the liability, and there’s no way in the world they can do it cheaper than us,” Barron said.