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Tax Bill Looms Over Museum Opening
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Tax Bill Looms Over Museum Opening

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The Wolf Point Area Museum will open a month earlier this year and close a month later than it did last year, and what happens in between with its $14,000-plus bill for back property taxes appears to be anyone's guess.

The museum will open at 9 a.m. Monday, May 2, and close for the season on Friday, Sept. 30, said Herman Shumway, chairman of the museum's board of directors.

"We're opening up a month early, and will stay open a month later," Shumway said.

Opening day activities have yet to be announced, although the museum is planning to host a contingent of Wisconsin women arriving in Wolf Point by train on May 3.

The museum, after moving to its new new, spacious facility in late June at 203 U.S. Hwy. 2 in Wolf Point, closed at end of August in 2010.

The museum had been housed in the basement of the Roosevelt County Library for decades before the move.

With the new location comes growing pains, however, such as the $14,000 bill for back taxes from Roosevelt County.

Roosevelt County tax appraiser Tom Nickels of the assessor's office said the property tax problem is a result of the Wolf Point Museum not obtaining tax-exempt status with the Montana Department of Revenue.

Nickels said the museum became responsible for county property taxes and city special taxes after it bought the Hansen Implement building on May 3, 2007, and converted the vacant building into a museum.

"They applied for a tax exemption in July of 2008 and never followed through with it," Nickels said. "So, consequently, the taxes have followed year after year after year."

Roosevelt County Treasurer Betty Romo said the museum owed $14,320 in county back taxes as of March 31. The back taxes were incurred from 2007 through 2010 after the museum acquired the Hansen building, Romo said.

Nickels said when the museum applied for tax-exempt status in 2008, the museum did not submit the necessary documents, such as its articles of incorporation and 501(c)(3) form.

"They didn't submit those with the application, so after about 60 to 90 days, the state wrote back and denied their application for failure to submit the documents," Nickels said, "and nobody ever reapplied or submitted the documents, so it just fell through the cracks."

Romo said property tax bills were sent in 2007 to a post office box in Wolf Point. Tax bills in 2008, 2009 and 2010 were sent to Diane Macdonald's home, Romo said.

Romo said she approached Gary Macdonald, the presiding officer of the Roosevelt County Commissioners and also the husband of Diane Macdonald, and asked if Diane Macdonald was still involved with the museum.

Romo said Gary Macdonald replied, "No."

"You've got to be kidding me," Romo said of her thoughts at the time. "The whole thing is just unbelievable."

Nickels said the Hansen building was last appraised in 2009 as a commercial/urban property with a land value of $43,339 and building value of $88,761, for a total of $132,100.

"The paperwork should have been filed with Helena for the tax-exempt status after they got the building on May 3, 2007," Nickels said. "Then, they got a 2007 tax bill and, at that point, tried to apply."

Nickels said the good news is that it appears the museum will get its tax-exempt status from the Montana Department of Revenue's tax-exemption department after the museum reapplied earlier this month.

"They reapplied and sent in the necessary documents now and what I've been told up in Helena is it appears they will qualify for tax exemption from this point forward," Nickels said.

But, even if state officials grant the museum tax-exempt status, that leaves the issue of $14,320 of back taxes, which could ultimately be up to the county commissioners to resolve.

At an April 11 special administrative session, the commissioners approved a motion offered by commissioner Duane Nygaard to abate the county's portion of the museum's back taxes.

The county's portion makes up the lion's share of the museum's back taxes, which also includes about $4,000 of city special taxes.

However, the commissioners convened another special administrative session the next day and rescinded the motion to abate the museum's back taxes.

Nygaard said, upon advice from the assessor's office, that the commissioners could not abate the back taxes since the Wolf Point Area Museum is not owned by a government entity and since the museum does not have state tax-exempt status.

Therefore, the museum — specifically the Wolf Point Area Historical Society that purchased the Hansen building — still owes the back property taxes since there is no tax-exempt entity to which the museum can transfer the building, Nygaard said.

The commissioners emphasized they do not want the museum's building.

"Roosevelt County does not want the building," Nygaard said, adding it is up to the attorneys involved and the assessor's office to work out.

"The county has no reasonable expectation of collecting the back taxes because of its museum status," Nygaard continued. However, we do not have the right to abate taxes."

Shumway said the museum has hired Culbertson attorney Laura Christoffersen to represent the museum in the tax dispute.

Shumway referred all questions about the museum's tax bill to Christoffersen, who did not return telephone calls.