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‘Many unknowns’ as Lake County pulls out of decades-old agreement

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Officials in Lake County have said there are more questions than answers after they informed the state that they were pulling out of a decades-old agreement because it can no longer afford to pay for law enforcement on the Flathead Indian Reservation. 

In November, the Lake County Commission sent a letter to Gov. Greg Gianforte informing him that the local sheriff’s office and criminal justice system would no longer handle felony law enforcement on the reservation under what is called Public Law 280. The agreement between the state and tribe is one-of-a-kind in Montana. The governor has six months to make a proclamation releasing Lake County of its duties, but as of Nov. 30, it has yet to respond, prompting frustration and concern among local officials. 

“This has never happened before so we don’t know what to expect,” Sheriff Don Bell told Montana Free Press. “There are so many unanswered questions.”

Since the 1960s, most law enforcement on the northwest Montana reservation has been handled locally, rather than by federal officers. The county system handles felony crimes, and (since the 1990s) the tribal system handles misdemeanors. Officials, including Sheriff Bell, said the agreement has been successful because everything is handled locally and things don’t fall through the cracks like they might with federal agents from out of town.

But for the last few years, officials in Lake County have said law enforcement duties have been wreaking havoc on its budget. According to the county, the agreement is costing local taxpayers more than $4 million annually. In years past, county officials said the bill was easier to pay thanks to taxes generated by the Kerr Dam (now called the Séliš Ksanka QÍispé Dam), but once the dam was sold to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, that revenue dried up. There was also no way for Lake County to pull out of the agreement; only the state or tribe could. 

Since 2017, there have been multiple attempts in the Legislature to get the state to help foot the bill. In 2021, one of those bills passed, but the state appropriated only $1 to the cause. In 2023, House Bill 479 would have authorized the state to pay $2.5 million annually for two years to Lake County. But despite passing both chambers, Gov. Gianforte vetoed it. In his veto letter, the governor — who in the past has hailed the Public Law 280 agreement as a success — said the county wanted all the benefits of the agreement without having to pay for it. But the county sees it differently, arguing that since the state entered into the agreement with the tribe, it’s the state’s responsibility to cover the costs. 

But even before Gianforte vetoed the bill, Lake County was looking for alternatives to get the state to pay, including filing a lawsuit against it last year. But last month, a judge ruled in favor of the state, despite criticizing it for holding back and in 2021 only providing $1 to help — a sum the judge called “patently absurd.” 

But that $1 wasn’t the only thing the Legislature passed in 2021. That year, the state also gave Lake County the ability to back out of providing law enforcement on the reservation, something that it had been hesitant to do — until now. In her ruling, Judge Amy Eddy said the state was essentially daring Lake County to do just that. 

“If the financial burden Lake County bears is unacceptable, which by all accounts it appears to be, its remedy is to withdraw,” she wrote.

After the county submitted its letter of withdrawal, the governor has six months to sign a proclamation releasing the county of its duties. Nearly two weeks after that letter was sent, however, the county has yet to have a conversation with the state about what will happen. 

On Nov. 30, the commissioners sent a follow-up letter asking specific questions of the state, including if it was preparing to provide its own uniformed officers to patrol the county, whether the state would prosecute tribal members accused of crimes or would shift that burden to federal agencies, and whether the state will establish its own detention facility to handle prisoners.

A spokesperson for Gianforte declined to answer specific questions about the state’s plans and, in an e-mailed statement to Montana Free Press wrote, “We’ll work with stakeholders to find the best path forward.”

But for people like Sheriff Bell, those answers can’t come soon enough. For now, he’s proceeding as normal, continuing to have his officers handle all felony crimes like they normally do, regardless of whether someone is a tribal member. Bell said he hopes all parties involved find a way to keep the status quo in place. 

“Public Law 280 works very well,” he said. “I just wish we had a way to pay for it. I’d really prefer if it did not go away.” 

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