A Montana county unearths a major welfare queen: itself

  • Teton County, Montana

    Diane Sylvain

CHOTEAU, Mont. - Adam F. Dahlman never doubted the old saying that for every dollar American taxpayers fork over to Uncle Sam, the government gives back 50 cents and instructions on how to spend it.

But that was before Dahlman, a commissioner in Teton County, north of Great Falls, took a long look at how much more money the federal government funnels into his corner of the world than it flushes out.

He found that for every $1 the federal government takes out of Teton County it gives back not 50 cents, but something closer to $2.50, in the form of everything from disaster aid to discount school lunches, according to a comparison of Internal Revenue Service and U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

"Sure shoots my theory in the head," Dahlman, a Republican, conceded.

Teton County's 6,271 residents paid roughly $10 million in federal income taxes in 1991, according to the latest IRS data available. But the county received roughly $25 million in federal dollars in 1993. That doesn't count another $11 million worth of Social Security payments distributed annually to the county's retired or disabled residents.

Like many jurisdictions across the country, the county is highly dependent on federal largesse.

High on Teton County's list were $2.7 million in direct loans and $19.9 million in guaranteed loans and insurance provided to residents in fiscal 1993, according to the Census Bureau.

Much of the assistance is channeled to 1,150 of the county's farmers, whose output has enabled the Teton County town of Fairfield to proclaim itself the malting barley capital of the world.

In exchange for reducing the size of their crops to help stabilize supply and demand, Teton farmers were paid $9.3 million by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in fiscal 1993.

A separate Conservation Reserve Program, designed to keep erodible land from being plowed, contributed another $3.3 million to the county. Federal drought assistance came to slightly more than $300,000. Taxpayer-provided crop insurance totaled $505,744.

Helping to administer these programs are one temporary and six permanent employees who work out of the USDA's Consolidated Farm Service Agency in Choteau, population 1,740.

Most farmers would just as soon not have any farm programs, said Rodney Cole, a participant in the Acreage Reduction Program.

But "the way it's been, the government steps in and plays games with the market," Cole said. "So if they're going to continue to play with the market, there should be some kind of subsidy for us."

Like Dahlman, Bob Krause, a Democrat and chairman of the Teton County Commission, believes that if government tightens its belt taxpayers should expect to feel the pinch.

But ask which programs Teton County would be willing to do without and "that's where you run into trouble," Krause admits.

For example, the U.S. Forest Service paid the county $70,870 in fiscal 1994 as part of a deal the government has made to return 25 percent of the revenue derived from timber, grazing, mineral and recreation use in national forests to counties whose borders encompass the forests.

Teton's slice is part of $29 million the Forest Service distributed to 48 counties in Montana, northern Idaho, eastern Washington, western South Dakota and North Dakota. The very suggestion that that money, along with Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT), might be routed to the federal Treasury instead drew a chorus of protests.

"Oh, don't pick on that one," Krause said, referring to the PILT payments. "We need that very badly. It's kind of a discretionary fund" that helps support Teton's rural fire department, its library and maintenance on public buildings, to name a few beneficiaries.

Even Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican and Montana's most conservative member of Congress, acknowledges that ferreting out waste alone won't balance the federal budget. The government also needs to cap the growth of entitlement programs, among them Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare, Burns said.

"We don't have to cut anything; we just have to limit the growth," the senator said.

But the prospect of reining in Medicaid - the government's health care program for the poor - is enough to send Jay Pottenger in search of some plop-plop fizz-fizz. Pottenger, administrator of the Teton Medical Center, says Medicaid pays for slightly more than half of the costs of operating the center, including a 39-patient nursing home.

"If we lost Medicaid they'd have to replace it with some other program," Pottenger said. "We wouldn't be around without it."

The $600,000-plus given to the medical center is part of $2.09 million in Medicaid money that was channeled to Teton County last year. The nursing home got another $341,000 from Medicare, the government's health care program for older Americans.

The reporter works for the Great Falls Tribune in Billings, Montana.