by Karen Lyncoln
for the Pathfinder
June 11, 1998
"I think it's unconscionable that we never answered your questions," said County Commissioner Barbara Evans at a meeting between the Seeley Lake Refuse District and the Missoula County Commissioners on Monday, June 1st. Evans apologized for the length of time it has taken county officials to respond to the Refuse District Board. Fern Hart, County Commissioner, added, "I'm not proud of how we did this."
The Refuse District requested the meeting with the County Commissioners after hearing from the County's Management Team on April 21st that there was no way to account for $20,000 collected by the county from the Refuse District in 1996 as an "administrative fee". According to county officials, the fee was billed to cover the costs of county personnel who assisted the Refuse District in acquiring and licensing the transfer station.
At the Monday meeting with the County Commissioners, John Sytsma, attorney for the Seeley Lake Refuse District, reiterated the two major concerns of the Refuse District Board.
First, Sytsma noted that the County Management Team had stated at the April 21st meeting that the Refuse District Board had a false and erroneous expectation that the funds would be accounted for. Sytsma explained that the Refuse District Board's expectations were based on comments of County Commissioner Michael Kennedy at a Refuse District Board meeting on September 23, 1996.
Commissioner Kennedy did not attend Monday's meeting and has denied making a commitment for quarterly reports on how the money was spent and a commitment to return any of the $20,000 that was not spent, as reported in the Refuse District Board's meeting minutes. In an interview after the Monday meeting, Evans said that one commissioner can not make a commitment that is binding on the entire commission. Binding commitments are made by official motions and votes at regular commission meetings.
Second, the Refuse District Board is concerned that there is no county policy for establishing or requiring accounting for administrative fees.
Paul Webber, the county's Chief Administrative Officer, responded, "We're unable to provide a detailed accounting of this fee." Webber added that fees, such as subdivision review fees, are usually a set amount based on past experience so that accounting is not required nor expected. He acknowledged that he could not find any documentation of how the county's previous Chief Administrative Officer had determined the fee charged to the Refuse District.
Barbara Evans asserted that the county did not want to go to court over this issue. She noted that while there was no way to go back and account for the fee charged, there was a way to keep the problem from happening again by developing a county policy for such fees. Hart said that the county needed to evaluate all administrative fees and to give advance notice to districts if fees were to be levied. Webber noted that in the future the amount of fees would be supported by documented experience.
Sytsma will report back to the Refuse District Board at its next meeting on June 23rd and discuss how to achieve a reasonable settlement with the county. He noted that the Board may attempt to reconstruct the cost of the county-provided services and to ask for a refund of the amount unexpended. A compromise settlement now would eliminate the need to file a suit in District Court to demand an accounting and recover any money remaining from the administrative fee.