Residential tax bills don’t track with overall property tax collections.

Residential tax bills don’t track with overall property tax collections.

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This story is excerpted from the MT Lowdown, a weekly newsletter digest containing original reporting and analysis published every Friday.


One of the many calculations I did while working on an in-depth analysis of how Montana property taxes have shifted this year (a story we published last week) was a look at per capita tax collections county by county. The results didn’t fit in the main story, but we thought they were worth breaking out as a separate item here.

The chart below compares two 2023 figures for each of Montana’s 56 counties: Up the vertical axis, each county’s average residential property tax bill, and along the horizontal axis, the total amount of state and local taxes collected on a per capita basis across all types of property.

You might expect that these numbers would be closely related — after all, it makes an intuitive sort of sense that the more tax dollars a county collects for each resident, the higher its average residential property tax bill will be. That expectation would be wrong.

In fact, if anything the reverse is true, especially if you exclude Madison County, where the combination of a generally rural county and Yellowstone Club resort properties produces a unique tax situation. (Of the state’s 100 most valuable residential properties, all but one are located in Madison County).

The explanation appears to hinge on non-residential properties, which in some cases contain enough taxable wealth that they allow above-average tax collections without placing much burden on residential properties. 

Two eastern Montana counties, Wibaux and Carter, are outliers in their per-resident collections, with MTFP’s estimates for the total county tax bills coming in at $12,939 per capita and $12,908 per capita respectively — more than six times the statewide figure of $2,083. Both counties have small populations and significant tax base wealth in non-residential properties, particularly oil and natural gas pipelines.

As a result, despite the high per capita collections, Wibaux and Carter homeowners pay some of the lowest property taxes in the state, with residential properties producing only about 1% of overall collections. (A caveat: outside towns, many rural residents live on properties that the state revenue department classifies as agricultural instead of residential.)

At the other corner of the chart, Missoula County and Bozeman’s Gallatin County have comparatively high average residential taxes, even as their total per capita collections, $2,267 and $2,600, are fairly close to the statewide figure.

In comparison, Sweet Grass County, which includes Big Timber, is collecting $3,741 per capita — more than $1,000 more than Missoula or Gallatin — even as its average residential tax bill is roughly half as much. (That’s in part because Sweet Grass benefits from substantial property tax revenues stemming from mining).

This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at edietrich@montanafreepress.org.

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