BROWNING — A note from Browning's mayor to the town’s citizens is taped to the front door of City Hall.
The toll from events over the past two years, Mayor Willie Morris writes, has forced the town to reduce operations to just four hours a day, four days a week.
Browning is broke.
Last month it posted a press release online telling its citizens it was at risk of disincorporation.
The town blames its financial troubles on the Blackfeet Tribe and the tribe’s Two Medicine Water Co., two entities the town has clashed with for years over management of the water utility that serves residents.
The tribe says the town must accept responsibility for its own poor fiscal management, dismissing the suggestion that the utility dispute caused Browning’s problems. The tribe says the town owes it money, a share of water bill collections that Browning agreed to pay so the tribe could pay debts it incurred to build the system that brings water into town.
By the end of a town council meeting Wednesday night, the four aldermen seemed resolved — Browning won’t disincorporate; bankruptcy is the best option.
“Us as the council, the aldermen, we decided that we’re not going to disincorporate,” Alderman Leo Kennerly said from the small meeting room inside city hall. “We’re going to call a bankruptcy attorney and ask where we’re going from there.”
Getting rid of a town in Montana isn’t a simple process. Either 15 percent of registered voters in the town can ask the county commissioners to disincorporate or two-thirds of the town’s council can resolve to. After that, it goes to a vote and needs 60 percent in favor of disincorporation to pass. The town must create a schedule for the repayment of its debts, and if there’s not enough money to do so, the county can levy and tax on land within the former town to make up the difference.
It isn’t clear just how broke the town is, but the sign on the door paints the picture Browning is out of funds. Even the clerk taking minutes at Wednesday’s council session wasn’t being paid for her time.
Near the middle of the meeting, Kennerly asked Glacier County Commissioner Tom McKay and Commission Chairman Michael DesRosier, who were in attendance, if the county could loan the town money to keep workers going.
“We’re broke, and (I) was wondering if maybe a loan, loan on our tax money that is supposed to be coming in … come up with some funding until we can talk to our bankruptcy lawyer, come up with a little bit of an idea what we’re going to do?”
When DesRosier asked just how much trouble the city was in, Aldermen Kelly Edwards answered by describing the town’s situation:
“Right now we’re working half hours, half days, shut down Fridays,” he said. “If there’s no gas to run the fire trucks, are you going to stand back and let them burn up? What we need is some revenues, some money to keep everything afloat.”
DesRosier said Glacier County doesn’t have a fund it can draw from for a loan like that and asked the town for the lay of its financial land.
“It would help see on paper where the debt lies, how much you owe, what inventory you got, what assets there are,” he said.
Kennerly didn’t have information in the form of numbers Wednesday night, but he asked about selling scrap iron in the city yards to “keep us rolling.”
The questions ran like that at the meeting, focusing on what’s now, what’s immediate, what happens tomorrow. The narrative going forward isn’t clear yet, and it’s just as fuzzy looking back to reconcile the town’s version of what happened with the tribe’s description of events.
In 2009 a new pipe was built to bring tribal water into Browning and surrounding areas. Both the tribe and city agree it was supposed to be run cooperatively through a memorandum of understanding, but that agreement broke down a few years later.
The water system, Blackfeet Tribal Business Council member Joe McKay said, was a tribal-led effort.
“We went out and got millions of dollars of grants and loans to build it,” he said. The deal was the tribe was going to bring the water down from Two Medicine Lake, which is on the reservation, and connect to the rest of the system, which the town would maintain. The town would bill residents and reimburse the tribe, which was paying the loans.
Joe McKay, who is Tom McKay’s brother, said things started to fall apart when it came time for the town and tribe to work together to set water rates.
“Not long after that, the town stopped cooperating,” Joe McKay said.
People started getting big water bills. McKay said he heard of one that was $5,000. His own bill went from $56 one month to $800 the next. He said the town has no meter readers and just estimates water usage.
“People were getting outrageous bills, and the town was not paying the tribe any money,” he said.
At that point, the tribe assessed its options. It could do nothing, try to continue talks with the town, or start its own water company to collect what it was owed. The tribe formed Two Medicine Water Co. and started sending out its own bills around 2013. Some residents started paying the tribe instead of the city, which is when the city says its financial situation became dire.
McKay said he has the fiduciary responsibility to protect his people’s resources.
“The town is responsible for its own actions,” Joe McKay said. “It’s a lot like the town’s been drunk on tribal money and they’re in denial.”
McKay said the tribe has been able to make debt payments, but it’s eating up money that could be used for other purposes. He said Two Medicine has brought in about $900,000 annually since launching.
“At least it cuts our losses,” McKay said. “The town has been in a financial spiral downward for some time. They were taking the money from the people and using it to subsidize city government operations.”
Tom McKay, the county commissioner, said at the town council meeting it was his understanding that the town of Browning basically ran all its operations with what it collected from water bill payments.
In light of the dispute and town’s finances, even Glacier County hasn’t been paying its water bill. The county is putting the money for its water bill into escrow. McKay said he hasn’t paid a bill for his home or business since the trouble started.
“I couldn’t see much sense in paying two bills, and I certainly didn’t see much sense in paying someone who didn’t have the capability of giving me the service if something went wrong.”
There are accusations being lobbed in both directions — the town says the tribe is threatening people with water shutoff notices, using lawyers as bullies and forcing businesses to hook up to the water system. The tribe says the town is using it as a scapegoat for long-simmering internal management problems.
Terry Bremmer, who had served as alderman before his current stint, said the town used to have an excess fund but it was “piddled off.” He attributed that to over-budget spending by town employees.
The town hasn’t had an annual audit, which is required by state law, since 2010, and Kennerly said he doesn’t know why the previous town leadership didn’t keep up on them.
Joe McKay said the last audit he saw, from 2006, had a negative cash balance of $161,000.
McKay acknowledges the tribe had trouble too, and had its own audits to catch up on but is making progress, filing one for 2014 last week.
“We’re on target for the first time in years,” he said. “Why isn’t the same thing fair for the city?”
Joe McKay said the city is now going after the town’s street lights — sending out a letter to Browning residents saying they will shut off because the town can’t afford to pay the electric bill — in another attempt to paint the tribe as the villain.
“Why would the city do that, in the dead of winter?” McKay asked. “It is trying to put the pressure on the tribe and make the tribe look like the bad guy. The tribe has done nothing more than try to protect its citizens.”
On Dec. 14, the attorney for Glacier Electric Cooperative sent a letter to the town of Browning confirming its receipt of a letter the town sent asking the co-op to shut off all the lights in town except the ones around the school. The attorney wrote that since it was such a “drastic measure,” it needed the town to again confirm the request in writing.
It is unclear when, or if, the lights will be turned off. After reading Browning’s letter, tribal leaders have sought to pay the bill, but details about how that would work and who would collect from residents are still being sorted out. The flurry of resulting letters from all parties feature the same tense tone as the water dispute.
At the city council meeting, Tom McKay encouraged the Browning aldermen to sit down with the tribal council.
“I think the thing to do would be to go in there and be honest with the council, because I really don’t think they want to own a town,” he said.
Both sides say the council and the aldermen met in early December, though accounts of that meeting differ.
Kennerly said they gave the tribe an MOU and after an initial positive reaction, they didn’t hear back from the tribe. Joe McKay said the draft agreement was not OK from a tribal standpoint and didn't hold the town accountable for paying back the tribe nor provide evidence of improved fiscal management.
Both Kennerly and McKay said they would still be open to working with the other, although they each expressed reservations.
DesRosier encouraged cooperation.
“Some of the most productive ideas come out of just sitting around drinking coffee, throwing all this out on the table … realizing we’re all in the same family, same boat, same community.”
Be the first to know
Get local news delivered to your inbox!