Last November, the Montana Department of Revenue shuttered its property assessment office in Philipsburg, deferring future inquiries from Granite County property owners to the agency’s new regional hub in Butte. Similar closures hit five other rural counties in the final weeks of 2017, and by February 2019, DOR’s bid to comply with state budget cuts will result in the closing of 22 additional assessment offices statewide. DOR reports that it has so far laid off 21 assessment-division employees. The agency has refrained from speculating about how many more jobs will be cut.
The loss of localized assessment services has generated consternation in western Montana, with Beaverhead and Deer Lodge counties going so far as to offer DOR rent-free space in their courthouses. An article in the Choteau Acantha earlier this month cast Teton County Commissioner Joe Dellwo as perturbed by the erosion of convenience and personal attention for older property owners. The story also raised questions about the fate of the agency’s property records, quoting Regional Assessment Division Manager Marlyann Verploegen as saying that some of those records will be transferred to the new hub in Great Falls, while older records will be destroyed.
If DOR plans to destroy any documents from its shuttered offices, Montana State Historical Society archivist Jodie Foley has yet to hear about it. Record retention is serious business in Montana, with DOR’s property assessment division alone being subject to a five-page schedule outlining how long certain documents must be preserved. The disposal of state records is an equally complex process governed by a multi-agency committee under the auspices of the Secretary of State. Unless covered under an agency’s retention schedule, the destruction of state records requires approval by the State Records Committee’s disposal subcommittee, on which Foley serves.
“We haven’t received any disposal requests on this matter yet,” Foley says. “From our vantage point, we just want to see that whatever records are historically significant in those offices that no longer have an administrative or fiscal or legal need to be kept, we would love to see them here.”
According to Property Assessment Division Administrator Shauna Helfert, the agency has been working for years to convert its report cards to digital form and purge hard copies. If any historic report cards still exist at offices slated for closure, it’s Foley’s understanding that they won’t be destroyed, but rather microfilmed. Any disposal request will give the historical society an opportunity to scoop up records it deems valuable, though there are challenges to making the records available to the public.
“The issue that you might come up against with some of these records is they could have private information in them,” Foley says, citing property sales prices as one example. “So it’s not something that could just be filmed and put online.”
The type of records that may interest historians ranges widely, but what quickly rises to the top of Foley’s list are property report cards. In addition to notes from past assessors and information on ownership of properties over time, these cards often contain photos, making it possible to track when additions were built. Older tax records can also provide insight into the lives of Montanans during different time periods, Foley adds, as they often list assets including livestock and furniture. From a research perspective, such information can be useful not only to individuals digging into their property’s past, but to historians like Sarah Carter, the Canadian author of Montana Women Homesteaders: A Field of One’s Own.
“Especially if you’re talking about a historic district or a historic home, this can be really rich,” Foley says.
The historical society itself hasn’t escaped the effects of Montana’s budget cuts. During a meeting of the State Records Committee last October, Foley briefed other members on the layoffs of researchers, including one tasked with heading the agency’s digitization effort. She also stated that while the agency currently has roughly 18,000 linear feet of space available for storage of physical records, without a new building the agency will have to be more “circumspect” about what it takes in.
Foley says that while she hasn’t received any disposal requests from DOR yet, that doesn’t mean they aren’t coming. This process—a state agency shutting down offices and changing its operational model statewide—is new, and she sees the historical society’s role as that of a guide to what requires preservation. Still, Foley empathizes with the concerns of residents in areas like Teton County.
“I think it just makes people nervous when these offices close and the records are suddenly not where they were, and suddenly not accessible in the way that they were,” she says. “But that doesn’t mean that they’re not going to be.”