Rep. Dudik hopes “Smurfit Bill” can help elsewhere in MT - KPAX.com | Continuous News | Missoula & Western Montana

Rep. Dudik hopes “Smurfit Bill” can help elsewhere in MT

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MISSOULA - A state law which allowed Missoula County to recover nearly $1 million in back taxes for the old Smurfit Stone mill property may prove to be a useful tool for other Montana counties facing similar delinquent taxes. 

The legislature approved the “Smurfit Bill” last session. But the bill’s sponsor hopes it becomes a tool to get other local governments out of a jam. 

It was a less than a year ago State Representative Kim Dudik and her colleagues in Missoula County came up with a unique idea for changing state law, allowing local governments to collect at least part of the hundreds of thousands of dollars in delinquent taxes. The problem for Missoula County was that the normal process would have required the county to seize the mill site from owners M2Green, along with the liability for contamination cleanup that’s still being developed.

“We really had no alternative as a county other than to file the tax lien process and acquire the land. Which, when land is contaminated, nobody wants to acquire it because then you acquire the cleanup costs," Dudik said. "The people who lived in that jurisdiction, they were paying higher taxes because of the unwillingness of the current owners to pay the taxes.” 

The solution opened the way for Missoula County to file a civil suit to force collection, without seizing the land and the cleanup risk. And the perfect opportunity came in July, when M2Green scheduled an auction. Though the suit, the county was able to claim proceeds from the auction, forcing Wakefield Kennedy, a Washington-based developer that backed M2Green to negotiate a settlement. 

That recovery, signed last week, amounts to 89 percent of total back taxes, nearly $1 million .

“The smaller the taxing jurisdiction, like a fire district or a school district, they’re really the ones that get hurt," Dudik said. "And they really can’t afford it. So especially with the fire season we had and with the school funding issues we have, we need to fund education and we need to make sure that our schools have that tool. So they need to get the taxes that they are owed.”

Now, Dudik is hoping the “Smurfit Bill” can help other Montana counties and towns facing similar delinquent tax bills, especially with industrial property.

“The results show that it works and it actually worked rather quickly when you look at how long legal processes typically take. So I know there is a place, I believe in Hardin, where they’re facing a similar situation. And I’d like to do some outreach there and talk with them about what we’ve done here in Missoula, how it’s worked for our citizens in Frenchtown and how they could use it to possibly recover for their citizens too. because it’s really not a Frenchtown-centric problem, it’s for all of the state. And this solution is for everyone.”

And the bill really did come as a relief for local agencies. Frenchtown School District recovered over $300,000 that will be critical to operations and planning.

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