State-run property assessment offices will close in about half of Montana counties due to budget cuts, reducing the presence of local personnel for some of the most rural communities.

The Montana Department of Revenue has already closed Property Assessment Division offices in six counties. The state will close offices for 22 more counties in the next 18 months.

“It’s not ideal. We’re being forced to do this due to a lack of money — budget,” said Mary Ann Dunwell, revenue department spokeswoman and state legislator from Helena. “We really have no choice.”

The division is taking a $3.1 million budget hit over the next two years — part of an $8.2 million reduction for the revenue department as a whole over the same period.

It’s the first time in at least 30 years that appraisers and valuation specialists will not have a presence in every county. In a letter to counties, revenue department Director Mike Kadas said that they will transition to regional offices and traveling appraisers.

Twenty-one assessment division employees have been laid off so far, and Dunwell said it’s unclear how many more state employees will lose jobs. No county employees’ jobs are threatened due to these cuts.

In addition, 40 vacancies in the division won’t be filled due to a hiring freeze, Dunwell said.

The office closures will happen in phases.

Slated for closure in April 2018 are offices in:

  • Teton County.
  • Blaine County.
  • Wheatland County.
  • Carter County.
  • Wibaux County.
  • Jefferson County.
  • Beaverhead County.
  • Glacier County.

Slated for closure in July 2018 are offices in:

  • Deer Lodge County.
  • Prairie County.
  • Sweet Grass County.
  • Petroleum County.
  • Broadwater County.
  • Meagher County.

Slated for closure in October 2018 are offices in:

  • Chouteau County.
  • Mineral County.
  • McCone County.
  • Daniels County.
  • Rosebud County.

Slated for closure in February 2019 are offices in:

  • Musselshell County.
  • Powder River County.
  • Roosevelt County.

Closures already took place in:

  • Granite County.
  • Powell County.
  • Liberty County.
  • Judith Basin County.
  • Pondera County.
  • Big Horn County.

Big Horn County Treasurer Jodi Guptill said their state assessor left around Thanksgiving.

“Now I don’t have that person here — these people in our county right here to go talk to," she said.

It’s the state assessors who appraise properties in Montana. They work most often with county treasurers, who process taxes based off those property values.

Treasurers in small Montana counties said Thursday that having the assessor close by helped them check numbers as they were turned over to the county. There’s “technical assistance” that goes back and forth, Dunwell said.

A bigger impact, they said, could be a reduction of public access to the state workers who determine their property value.

“What we are concerned about is taxpayers losing the ability to have face time with the people who assess their property,” said Carter County Treasurer Jesi Strub.

She said that appraisal disputes were sometimes resolved informally by a visit to the state assessment division office, avoiding the process of a formal tax protest. There was a real customer service aspect, she said.

Wheatland County Treasurer Kari Schuchard said it could bring challenges.

“We have an older community — so they’re not going to be able to go online,” Schuchard said. “That’s going to be very difficult for them, and frustrating.”

Property Assessment Division offices will remain in counties with the most properties — and the highest workload. Appraisers will have a larger geographic responsibility to serve the counties without a brick-and-mortar office.

The department is still working out the details of this plan, especially with regard to how many people will remain on hand to cover those areas.

“We do plan to have approximately 20 mobile appraisers who will travel,” Dunwell said. “There will be a home base for them but they will travel throughout the surrounding area.”

In his letter to counties, Kadas said that a review of workloads for each division office revealed that not all counties need a full-time employee.

It's possible that having a less-focused eye on local property values could result in less property tax revenue.

“If we’re not able to get to something to appraise it, it’s not included in the tax base,” Dunwell said. “And that’s translated into revenue for the county.”

County treasurers who spoke with The Gazette on Thursday said that it’s unclear how much of this will actually affect revenue for local governments. Many other effects of the change are largely unknown.

Strub, the Carter County treasurer, said that their state appraiser was a good local resource for people, and the closing of that office will be felt in the small community.

“We’re very, very saddened to know that more and more of our local services are taken away,” she said.

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General Assignment Reporter

Reporter for The Billings Gazette.