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Missoula Co. considers disaster declaration as flood budget rises

On Thursday Missoula County commissioners will consider making a disaster declaration, which means they are reaching the end of their cash reserves. A declaration opens the county to state aid.

As of Monday, two weeks of flooding cost the county an estimated $122,000, and that rises every day.

Chris Lounsbury, chief operating officer for Missoula County, said commissioners can use about $198,000 in emergency funds, and Thursday’s anticipated disaster declaration means they think they are approaching that number.

The $122,000 pays for a wide variety of personnel, including Public Works employees working on roads and bridges, sheriff’s office employees working on safety issues, staff working the information line, information trailers and helping with the media. Then there’s the fire departments, which run off their own budgets and city police.

A few volunteers like search and rescue and reserve deputies also donate their time.

While it’s a lot of agencies, resources aren’t unlimited.

"We're a department of 54 sworn officers, so we're actually a very small department, so we just rely on our people to kind of step up when they need to, but that doesn't take their other duties away, unfortunately," said Brenda Bassett, public information officer for the Missoula County Sheriff’s office.

The floods are just the latest event driving up costs for the county’s budget. It falls in the same fiscal year as three major wildfires. The county’s annual budget began on July 1, 2017, and ends June 30, 2018.

"Last year was a huge year in terms of manpower and overtime," said Bassett.

The overtime budget is worked out in the year ahead.

“They set that budget in hopes of, you know, not having to go over that, but you don't know what each year is going to bring," said Bassett.

This year brought a lot -- three major wildfires in the county, a couple manhunts and now a flood, and that’s not all. Bassett says they’re seeing a lot more violent crimes in Missoula County as the population increases, and those calls take longer and more personnel.

There is a silver lining. The county is being reimbursed for some of the wildfire costs from the Forest Service and the DNRC. Then, if the county commissioners declare a disaster, they can ask the state to reimburse a portion of flood costs.

Montana is also under a state of emergency. If it meets its threshold of about $3 million across the state it’s eligible for federal assistance through FEMA.

Lounsbury said, in the year after an emergency, commissioners can levy again to replenish the $198,000 emergency funds if they need to. That’s something commissioners will look at as they go through the budget process and try to guess what next year might bring.

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