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A special tax district formed in southern Broadwater County has Three Forks officials concerned the additional growth will burden already strained services.

Broadwater County commissioners on Monday approved the formation of an economic development district that soon will be home to a 4,500-seat amphitheater and brewery just west of Three Forks, despite the concerns expressed about the project by various officials on the east side of the county line.

Representatives of Three Forks’ school district, Rural Fire District and Area Ambulance Service – all of which are based in Gallatin County, but provide services to citizens in southern Broadwater County – aired their concerns to the commission in October about the increased burden they expect the district to create for their respective entities.

At issue for most is that they won’t share in the increased tax revenue generated in the upzoned Targeted Economic Development District (TEDD) for at least 15 years. Instead, the portion of the additional taxes collected from Bridger Brewing and from amphitheater developer Logjam Presents, will be used primarily for infrastructure development in the new Wheatland Area Zoning District, most of which is located on about 250 acres of property on the east side of Highway 287, across from the Wheat Montana Bakery & Deli, just north of Interstate 90.

Dave Breck, co-owner of Bridger Brewing, said construction of the brewery will begin in March, and be completed next winter. A pub will be built on site after that. Though Logjam would not comment for this story, other media outlets have published a projected 2021 opening date for the amphitheater.

In October, Three Forks Mayor Sean Gifford brought his concerns to Broadwater County Commissioners.

“Our coffers aren’t exactly flowing over in Three Forks and what you guys are going to ask us to do over the next 15 years is subsidize the growth,” he said at an Oct. 11 public hearing.

In a memo to the commissioners, Gifford also cited his concerns about the TEDD’s potential economic and public safety impacts.

“Broadwater County enacting a TEDD will have the economic incentive of pulling business out of the City of Three Forks and placing that tax base in Broadwater County. Further it will encourage commercial industrial business to build outside of the Three Forks municipal limits and in the TEDD area,” Gifford wrote.

The memo also pointed out that it is the Three Forks Rural Fire District, not the Broadwater County Rural Fire District, that provides services in southern Broadwater County, and that deputies from the Gallatin County Sheriff’s department often assist the Broadwater County Sheriff’s office with calls there.

“It is my opinion that Broadwater County has failed to provide adequate law enforcement for the residential subdivision in this area,” Gifford’s memo stated. “The lack of Broadwater County law enforcement presence has burdened Gallatin County and the City of Three Forks to provide the law enforcement presence.”

After Monday’s vote, Gifford said the concerns he expressed previously still remain.

“My concern going forward is that the fire district is going to be ill-equipped to handle a 4,500-seat amphitheater and whatever else they put in,” he said. “It’s going to be Gallatin County’s issue.”

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The Montana Business Assistance Connection (MBAC), an economic development agency for Broadwater, Lewis and Clark, and Meagher counties, has spent the past two years working with 

Broadwater County to enact the TEDD, according to Brian Obert, MBAC executive director and husband of Broadwater County Commissioner Laura Obert. He said the idea of developing infrastructure through tax increment financing in the Wheatland area has been considered as long as the county’s current Growth Policy has been in place. When Bridger Brewing expressed interest in locating there, “it made sense to propose this,” Obert said.

Targeted Economic Development District’s are vehicles through which businesses pay taxes that are not collected by government agencies in their jurisdictions, but used instead for infrastructure development for 15 years, though that period of time can be extended up to 40 years, Obert said. In the case of the Wheatland TEDD, the additional taxes will go primarily toward development of a water system and expandable sewer system within the TEDD. Broadwater County isn’t the only entity that will continue to collect taxes on the property under the agricultural zoning classification that was in place on Jan. 1 2019: A portion of the Three Forks Rural Fire District and Three Forks school district extends into that southern portion of Broadwater County. They also will collect the taxes on the parcel at the pre-TEDD level. School and fire district representatives argue that the TEDD will increase the level of service they will be required to provide, even though they won’t be collecting any additional revenue.

Jeff Elliott, Three Forks schools superintendent, said the district already is struggling to keep up with a rapidly growing student body, and that many of the new students live in new Broadwater County subdivisions that lie within the school district’s boundary.

“There are 17 homes under construction out there right now, and if you continue to add businesses out there, it will grow even more,” Elliott said. “It’s frustrating to miss out on the (tax) gains.”

Broadwater County Commissioner Darrel Folkvord agreed, but said the school district will benefit from the development “in time.”

“One of the unfortunate things about increment tax revenue is that it goes to developing infrastructure in the district,” Folkvord said. “But once that district is developed, those tax revenues will go to the schools.”

Elliott acknowledged that businesses in the TEDD would participate fully if the district is able to pass a bond issue for facilities upgrades next spring, but he said similar measures have been defeated by voters in the past.

The Three Forks Rural Fire District shares the same service boundary as the school district, so it does respond to calls in southern Broadwater County. Denny Nelson, spokesman for the Fire District, said growth in Broadwater County already is having an impact, and the TEDD is likely to create more.

“You’re throwing a huge amount of load on us, but you’re not sharing the financial part,” he said. “This will put an additional huge impact on an already strained system.”

Gene Townsend, secretary of the Fire District board, said that Broadwater County property owners already pay far less than those living in the Gallatin County portion of the district. The Fire District budget is about $160,000, he said, of which Broadwater County provides about $12,000.

“We get a lot of calls out there,” Townsend said, noting that there are about 700 homes in the Broadwater portion of the Fire District now, as opposed to only five or six in 1980.

“It’s going to affect Three Forks way more than it’s going to affect Townsend, and we don’t have a say,” Townsend added. “Broadwater County Commissioners don’t look at how it affects us.”

Numerous officials interviewed for this story said that they, too, were frustrated with what they perceived as a lack of concern, communication and cooperation from Broadwater County officials about the TEDD. Elliott said Broadwater County did not reach out to the school district, and that communication was “very, very limited.” He added that he happened to be present at a meeting of civic leaders in Three Forks where Obert spoke, but that he had not met with Obert about the effects of the TEDD on the school district.

Gallatin County Commissioner Don Seifert said Gallatin County officials weren’t contacted about the proposal. He said he did reach out to his Broadwater County counterparts to encourage them to consult with the fire district and school districts, but that it never happened.

“We hear that, but the fact of the matter is we did reach out,” said Folkvord. He said letters were sent, notices were posted in public places, and ads were run in newspapers. He added that the commissioners held a meeting at the Headwaters Stockyard in July where the TEDD was discussed.

“We did as good a job as we could to inform everybody,” Folkvord said.

Gifford acknowledged there was a meeting at the stockyard, but said most of the people who showed up were mostly residents concerned about Price Road, which was also on the agenda. 

Obert said he has heard Three Forks-area stakeholders feel “this is being rammed down our throats,” but he said he has e-mails proving that outreach did occur.

“I thought we were working very well for a long time, and I felt like we had a good relationship with the superintendent of schools,” Obert said. “I’m very cognizant that the school district has issues, and that growth is having an impact that ends up costing money,”

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Obert acknowledged that Broadwater County officials did not contact Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin about the project, even though Gallatin County does assist with calls across the county line when necessary. Gootkin confirmed this week that he had not heard anything official about the proposed amphitheater and brewery, so he was unable to comment about whether it would have an effect on his department.

Broadwater County Sheriff Wynn Meehan said he also was given little information throughout the TEDD planning, but he knows enough to believe that it will create a problem for him. He said he currently has only one deputy assigned to serve the southern end of the county, on four days a week. Cuts to his department budget prevent him from being able to provide more staffing in the Wheatland area, so Gallatin County deputies assist there fairly often.

Meehan added that while the economic development goals of the TEDD are relevant, he is afraid it could “create a nightmare.” Though he hasn’t had any discussions with Bridger Brewing or Logjam, he does believe the concerns coming out of Three Forks about additional law enforcement and public safety are relevant.

Though he has heard rumors that Logjam provides its own security in venues such as the proposed amphitheater, Meehan said there are plenty of scenarios that could develop there – for example, fights involving weapons – that would require law enforcement response. (Logjam officials declined to comment for this story.) Increased traffic, alcohol use, and lack of lodging in the area adds to Meehan’s concerns.

“We already have a dangerous highway, and when there’s no place to put people, they’re going to be on the roads,” Meehan said.

He added that Three Forks Rural Fire District is not adequately equipped to handle fires that might break out at a bottling plant or amphitheater, because the department does not have a ladder truck or aerial gun. Should such equipment be needed, it likely would have to come in the form of mutual aid from Central Valley Fire District. On Wednesday, Central Valley Fire Chief Ron Lindroth said he has not been contacted about the project.

Public safety considerations have been discussed among the Broadwater commissioners, Folkvord said. The idea of floating a public safety mill levy in the district has been talked about, and MBAC has applied for a $750,000 “Delivering Local Assistance” grant from the Montana Department of Commerce to build a public safety building in the TEDD on land donated by Bridger Brewing.

A preliminary design of the building, which could include office space for the Broadwater County Sheriff’s deputy, bays for emergency equipment, and a public meeting room, has been completed by architecture students at Montana State University. Obert said the cost of that facility is estimated to be about $1 million, and that any portion of the cost not covered by the grant likely could be taken from the incremental tax generated by the TEDD.

However, Obert said he isn’t confident the grant will be funded, and in that case, planners will try to figure out a way to fund a smaller structure.

Meehan and some Three Forks officials have plenty of concerns about such a building being able to solve the public safety concerns.

“The folks in Gallatin County shouldn’t be buying a fire truck to park in Broadwater County,” Meehan said. “It’s not Sheriff Gootkin’s job to put a patrol car in Broadwater County. I think Broadwater County should have more skin in the game.”

Gifford added that it is unclear who would be responsible for paying for building maintenance, utility costs, etc.

Folkvord said the TEDD is not a perfect vehicle for spurring development, but it is the way that a financially strapped county can spur economic development and create infrastructure in an area where it is lacking. Despite the growing pains, he believes that all concerns will evaporate when the TEDD sunsets and various entities began collecting increased taxes from the businesses located there.

Gallatin County Commissioner Seifert agreed.

“I think Three Forks will generally prosper from it,” he said. “I hope it’s successful, because I think it will drive a lot of business.”

Gifford said he agrees, but only to a point.

“Will it be good for Three Forks? Maybe in the long run, but there’s no return on this for 15 years,” he said, while once again questioning the wisdom of siting a 4,500-seat amphitheater on a two-lane highway before supporting infrastructure and services are in place. “They’re (Broadwater County) putting the cart before the horse without addressing the growth and infrastructure problems that are there already.”