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Lake County initiates withdrawal from Public Law 280 agreement

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Posted at 11:39 AM, Dec 09, 2022

POLSON - Lake County commissioners say they have initiated removal from an agreement with the state of Montana in regard to felony crimes committed on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

The agreement called "Public Law 280" is a federal law under which the state and Lake County agreed in 1963 that the county will investigate and prosecute felony cases against Native Americans on the Flathead Indian Reservation.

Lake is the only Indian reservation county in the state where local law enforcement handles felony cases against Native Americans – and says it’s costing the county about $4 million a year.

In their statement, commissioners say Lake County “is at a breaking point” and the county and taxpayers “are on the verge of being overwhelmed.”

Below is a press release from Lake County Commissioners of their notice:

"Lake County Commissioners, Bill Barron, Steve Stanley and Gale Decker, initiated the withdrawal of Lake County from its agreement with the State of Montana to conduct law enforcement and provide other services on the Flathead Reservation under the federal law known as Public Law 280. Today, Lake County provided official notice that the withdrawal from Public Law 280 is on the agenda for the Lake County Commission meeting scheduled on Monday, December 12, 2022 at 10:00 am during which the Lake County Commission will initiate and continue the process to withdraw from its agreement with the State of Montana regarding Public Law 280."

The Lake County Commissioners issued the following statement Friday:

"Lake County is at a breaking point. As we prepare the 2023/2024 fiscal year budget, we believe our taxpayers are doing all they can to support our communities and the many visitors who pass through the County. We provide law enforcement, road infrastructure, access to healthcare, waste management and other vital services. We are facing a growing population, deferred maintenance of roads and bridges, inadequate county buildings, outdated incarceration facilities and a troubling increase in drug-related crime. Lake County and its taxpayers are on the verge of being overwhelmed."

"We have great confidence in our sheriff and his deputies, and the tribal officers, district judges, prosecutors and staff members who conduct themselves professionally as dedicated public servants. Yet, they are being overwhelmed by the volume of work, inadequate facilities and crumbling infrastructure. Lake County and its taxpayers are facing a financial crisis resulting from the need to adequately fund Public Law 280 law enforcement services."

"Earlier this year, the Lake County Commissioners made it clear that they hoped to avoid litigation or pull out of the Public Law 280 agreement and attempted to work with the Governor’s office for a positive long-term solution before the end of 2022. Yet, despite significant efforts and well-informed suggestions of the Lake County Commissioners regarding how the State of Montana could act, the State of Montana has remained silent and has refused to address the Commissioners’ concerns."

"We are not going to tolerate this any longer and are initiating the process to withdraw Lake County out of the Public Law 280 agreement with the State of Montana. The most immediate way to fix this crisis is to fix what is causing it. The State of Montana obligated and bound itself to assume criminal jurisdiction under Public Law 280. Yet, it has effectively shifted the cost of this obligation to the County’s taxpayers. It is time for the State of Montana to reimburse Lake County for the last eight years to fulfill the State’s obligation under Public Law 280. Going forward, the State must continue to pay more than the $4 million a year it is costing Lake County taxpayers to fulfill the State’s obligation under Public Law 280."

"If the State were paying its obligation, Lake County tax dollars could be used to update the infrastructure of Lake County. As is, Lake County has become what criminals consider a “catch and release county.” More than 80 felony warrants per month do not result in incarceration, but instead result in a ticket and the offender being released on the same day. This is exceptionally dangerous, as criminals charged with illegal drug trafficking and other violent crimes are being set free because the Lake County jail is overwhelmed."

"The safety and security of our children, families, businesses, and visitors must be protected. We must solve this problem now. It is time that the State stop kicking the can down the road and fulfill its obligation. Our tax dollars must be available to support our schools, infrastructure, and services, rather than be used to fulfill an obligation that expressly belongs to the State itself."

"To be clear, we believe the local control and the ability to collaborate with tribal leaders and law enforcement officials afforded by Public Law 280, works very well. We do not want to take the extreme step of pulling away from Public Law 280, leaving it to the State of Montana to attempt to take over from afar. It is likely that Montana State taxpayers will have to spend more than $100 million in start-up costs, which would not even provide the services that Lake County residents deserve. By providing this notice now, Lake County has begun the six-month process during which the State of Montana must start to buy, build or rent the buildings and vehicles necessary to support a newly hired law enforcement, administrative and leadership force, as well as the personnel and detention facility necessary to fully prosecute felonies on the Flathead Reservation and to fulfill the obligations of Public Law 280. This notice is taking place before the 2023 Montana State Legislature convenes, allowing the State of Montana to appropriate the funds necessary to achieve this task."

"An important reason this is happening now is that we are obligated to provide a budget for fiscal year 2023/2024 for Lake County. With the refusal of the State of Montana to meet its obligations under Public Law 280, we have no choice but to withdraw from this agreement and proceed with our budgeting process."