In Ennis: Treasurer counters trustees’ assertions

2012-02-23T00:00:00Z In Ennis: Treasurer counters trustees’ assertionsBy Nick Gevock of The Montana Standard Montana Standard
February 23, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Madison County Treasurer Shelly Burke said this week Ennis school trustees have not leveled with the community regarding property taxes.

Burke said that the district could have been lowering property taxes every year and still funding the school, but it was instead putting millions of dollars into non-voted accounts with the goal of building a school.

Burke blasted a letter Ennis trustees published last week in The Madisonian newspaper implying that she approved the district’s budgets; budgets that for several years put more property tax dollars into adult education than its general operating fund.

And she said she repeatedly questioned the board about its moves to build up the adult education funds and told county and state officials about the practice, but got nowhere.

“They’re not going to come back on me and say I just looked the other way and did nothing,” she said. “It was just all a game to try to go around having a vote for that school.”

Ennis Superintendent Doug Walsh and Marc Glines, board chairman, did not return repeated telephone calls from The Standard this week seeking comment.

At issue is the financing for a $10 million grade school that was recently opened in Ennis. The building was largely paid for with adult education money that had built up over years and did not go to a public vote. The way the school was paid for has sparked a bitter fight in the rural town.

THIS MONTH state Attorney General Steve Bullock issued a final ruling that the use of adult education and transportation money for new school construction was illegal because they had to be used for the purpose for which they were collected.

The disagreement in Madison County comes down to what constitutes a tax hike.

Jim McNally, a school board member, said the trustees stand behind the fact that they did not raise the mills levied for property taxes. And he said their budgets were open and reviewed by county officials.

“We did not increase the mills,” he said. “The commissioners voted and approved each one of those budgets.”

LAST WEEK Ennis board members Glines, McNally, Gary Croy and Mike McKittrick and former member Brett Owens wrote in their letter they were never trying to build the school without public support. And they said the goal was to keep taxes down and not use bonds to pay for the school. The idea to fund the project came from Walsh, they said.

“Mr. Walsh came to the Board with an idea that would allow us to build the school without increasing the number of mills we were asking from the taxpayers,” the letter said. “We were not attempting to bypass the voters; we were trying to build the new school without increasing taxes.”

McNally said Tuesday they did that by keeping property taxes at 92 mills for years before they were eventually dropped, meaning taxes didn’t rise.

But Burke pointed out that while the mills levied remained the same, the school district’s taxable value tripled from 2002-2011. A mill went from generating $18,051 in 2002 to $62,258 by 2011. That was largely because of development at Big Sky and Moonlight Basin ski resorts, which accounts for 78 percent of the property taxes paid in the district.

As the property values rose, the number of mills allocated to the adult education and transportation funds rose every year while the mills put toward the general fund were dropped. By 2007, the district was putting more money into both of those funds than its general fund, which pays for teacher salaries and other operations.

“The school was built without any increase in taxes,” the board members’ letter said.

IT ALSO SAID taxpayers saved $2 million in interest on bonds over 20 years. And they noted that in recent years, the district has dropped its total mill levy to 50 mills.

But Burke said to claim that millions of new dollars in tax revenue for all those years isn’t a tax increase is “absurd” because they could have been cutting taxes and still funding the school. She said $10 million in revenue doesn’t just show up.

“If you need the same amount of money, obviously you’re going to lower the amount of mills,” she said. “It’s not rocket science.”

And she said the assertion that this was a new idea by Walsh is ridiculous because he was steadily building up the non-voted funds. The goal was to build the school by taxing Big Sky.

“Where do they think the money came from to build that school? They never had that money before,” she said. “It becomes very clear and very obvious.”

THE BOARD members said in their letter that development was a big part of the increased taxable value. They were also pulling money from a variety of sources, including from a talc mine and building reserve levies, but the new development was the biggest source.

“At that time about 70 percent of every dollar the district received was coming from these developments and changing state tax valuations,” the letter said.

But Burke said that doesn’t change what the taxes were ostensibly levied for — adult education. She questioned Walsh about their adult education program and said they couldn’t provide a curriculum.

She said it’s silly to argue that they needed millions of dollars in tax revenue when they offered a handful of classes.

“They shouldn’t have been (taxing) anything,” she said. “It’s just absolutely absurd.”

— Reporter Nick Gevock may be reached at nick.gevock@mtstandard.com

Copyright 2015 Montana Standard. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(12) Comments

  1. forthekids
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    forthekids - March 27, 2012 10:19 am
    Commissioner Jim Hart, last year after voting the first time for an audit (only phase one of that audit was completed and the school's books were never looked at) publicly stated after casting his vote, "My daughter will never get a teaching job here" (she was student-teaching in Ennis at the time). At last week's special board meeting concerning the audit, Hart stated he just wanted this to be over and commissioner Dave Schulz sat there silently because, as he later stated, "he was outnumbered." With commissioners as weak-kneed as Hart and Schulz, it's not surprising that Shelly Burke's concerns fell on deaf ears.

    MT Teachers' Retirement System has been sending requests for information from Ennis Schools for years and the information they've asked for has never been provided by Doug Walsh and Ginger Martello. Why is it that NOBODY, not even the people who worked in the bus barn, knew that Walsh was a bus supervisor? Why is it that Trustees Marc Glines, Jim McNally, Mike McKitrick and Gary Croy under oath stated they have no idea why they made Walsh a 2/3rd bus supervisor to the tune of $89,000 a year? I obtained my parts of their depositions from the court house in VC, where they are on file. If you don't believe the absurdity of the men on this school board, I encourage you to meander over to the court house and pay for photocopies of the parts of their depositions that are on file. And if this isn't true, let them deny it and explain, because I read it in The Madisonian in January also. How is that we only needed a 1/3rd time superintendent for 10 years but then suddenly we needed a full time superintendent after TRS issued their final report? And where is the public forum to answer the community's many questions the men on the board promised last August? We're still waiting for that forum. Honorable men do the right thing and keep their promises.
  2. riteway
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    riteway - March 05, 2012 5:15 pm
    I applauld Treasurer Burke for the article and information she published, about time we get some real facts no matter how it hurts. Back when the courthouse bond was voted down it was put out that Doug Walsh should be put in charge, he would get the money! A red flag should have been paid attention to then! The commissioners, school board, county attorney, OPI should have gone to the AG long ago for his opinion. Very enlightening to find out the mill has increased as much as it has. The commissioners say the county is in good shape monetarily, this is why. How about maybe thinking of cutting back on the mills someplace and give the taxpayers a little break, instead of doing the usual political thing and just spend more money!! Yeh Mav, the new office purchases and renovations have taken place and the public didn't get to vote. What's a million or so when you've got it to spend, what ever happened about making the old courthouse ADA accessable??? Probably after a couple million more it'll come back to life.. Enough for now, thanks again Treasurer Burke for getting the real word out and doing it the RITEWAY!!!!!
  3. mav
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    mav - February 25, 2012 1:58 pm
    Can anyone shed a little light on the story I am hearing about the county recently purchasing some land in the Virginia City area for some new offices or jail. I understand that they have saved a large amount of money for this, without putting it up for a vote. If it is true why is it okay for the county to do what you are blasting the Ennis school for?
  4. concern
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    concern - February 25, 2012 12:01 pm
    My concern is this- why did someone forget to put the Rural Fire Dept. Mills of my Tax's for last year so we had to double up this last time. People are being distracted and pointing the finger, but forgetting to do there jobs. I would like to know sampson65 where was the TRS since 2001, or are they not doing their job? Where is my Tax Money going? Lisa-( your employee ) Shelly informed the School Board Trustees that they needed to change there Schedule, because she doesn't have time to this and that, but boy we have time for how many articles in the paper & etc. What's more important a washer for clean towels that our Kids use or Lisa's mouth running.
  5. mav
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    mav - February 24, 2012 10:54 am
    I was just reading through this article again and was wondering if anyone noticed the same thing that I did? It appears that the County Treasurer may have just thrown the commissioners under the same bus that has been running over the school board. She stated that she has been taking her concerns to them for some time and not getting anywhere. INTERESTING!!!!!
  6. knk
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    knk - February 24, 2012 10:13 am
    Seriously sampson65?! You are blaming Doug Walsh for Plentywood's school burning down? WOW! That's a pretty harsh statement to make unless you have some proof to actually back it up. All the articles I have read regarding Walsh and his tenure in Plentywood have NOTHING to do with a fire.
    And your statement regarding compensation or benefits to the school board trustees and their families is absolutely asinine. You obviously have NO CLUE who these people are, or you are completely ignorant to the character of these amazing individuals.
    What kind of person are you to make these accusations?
  7. mav
    Report Abuse
    mav - February 24, 2012 8:17 am
    What a horrible thing to say, especially considering what these board members and their families have been put through in the past few month. Schools are going to find it harder and harder to find people who want to serve on their boards, especially if they have to go through the BULL that has been goiing on in Ennis. It is criminal how a small group of people lead by a bully have tried to ruin the reputation of some very good people.
  8. sampson65
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    sampson65 - February 24, 2012 6:22 am
    I think the real question is have any of these board members or their children received any benefits from being on the board, monetary or otherwise? I think that is a reasonable question based on all that has transpired. I mean what would make 4 reasonable men give Doug Walsh another contract after Teachers Retirement Systems says he owes $560,000 and they believe he may have committed fraud? Why would anyone who is NOT getting paid stand by this man? This is the same man who's action caused the Plentywood scool to burn down.
  9. mav
    Report Abuse
    mav - February 23, 2012 10:58 am
    Rujoken, that is a great suggestion. Based on what the county treasurer is stating, she voiced concerns to both the county and state. I, as well as many others would also be interested in knowing who she contacted and when. It seems to me that if they had the same concerns as Ms Burke that the budgets would not have been signed off on. Now lets see if the Standard will actually follow up on these questions.
  10. rujoken
    Report Abuse
    rujoken - February 23, 2012 10:20 am
    ATTENTION NICK GEVOCK;
    Since you claim you are trying to be fair and balanced could you get the following information and run it in one of your articles. Could you get the names of all of the county officials, all of the state officials, the dates they were contacted, and what they said when they were contacted by the Madison County treasurer concerning the Ennis school building project. Thanks
  11. rujoken
    Report Abuse
    rujoken - February 23, 2012 8:43 am
    would someone please answer these questions for me please? Do the commissioners approve all school districts budgets every year or don't they? What are the names of the state and county officials that the treasurer talked to about the Ennis school budget, what did they say, and how many years ago was it? Did Dennis Parman, one of the top ranking officials with OPI write a letter to our county attorney and state that what the Ennis school was doing was unusual but not illegal or didn't he? Since OPI did their big flip flop the AG ruled against the Ennis schools. SO NOW WERE RUNNING ANOTHER AUDIT! Is our treasurer doing her job or does she just really hate the people of Ennis? Does our newest board member represent the people of Ennis or the Treasurers office? Since everyone likes to print all of our other board members in the press why is Tony Tezaks name never mentioned? He is one of the biggest critics of the current board but was in full support of the boards school building plan. Its common knowledge that about the only no vote he ever cast was about hiring an ex basketball coach. But that's a whole other story. OR IS IT. So who wins the flip flop of the year award? The county commissioners, the Office of Public Instruction, Or our former angry board member? Please cast your votes.
  12. mav
    Report Abuse
    mav - February 23, 2012 8:00 am
    It seems to me that the bottom line is that up untill the past few months both the county and state approved the budgets presented to them by the Ennis school district. It is interesting that they are now acting like they have been hoodwinked and are jumping on the bandwagon to throw the board under the bus. IF you were all so concerned why did you allow the building project to go on? It is a little late now and all it is doing is creating a larger rift in a great little slice of heaven.

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