Candidates Repeatedly Late On Property Tax Payments
Several candidates for federal office in Montana were repeatedly late to pay taxes over the last decade on business or residential property, according to an analysis of county property tax records verified with local treasurers, accruing penalties and interest ranging from a few hundred dollars up to almost $1,500 in one case.
That sum was owed by Little Belt Cattle Company, the ranching operation coowned by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tim Sheehy, which routinely posted delinquent payments since its 2020 launch. Key Republicans both in Washington, D.C., and in Montana have put Sheehy forward as the best candidate to take on three-term Democratic Montana Sen. Jon Tester in 2024, though the primary is still months away and other Republicans may still emerge.
Candidates of both major political parties have been late on property taxes. And for residential property taxpayers, it’s not altogether uncommon, according to the several county treasurers and staff Montana Free Press spoke with. In Missoula County, for example, owners of about 2,300 properties — out of roughly 47,500 billed properties total — received notices of a pending tax lien this year, an indication that they’re late on a payment, according to the county treasurer’s office. But as more Montanans are feeling the squeeze of the rising cost of living — and when the median residential property in the state saw its value increase by 46% this year — voters may want to know how the candidates in a series of closely watched elections have handled their own finances. After all, candidates for office often run on their business acumen, and whether business owner, lawyer or farmer are often wealthy.
Perhaps a late payment humanizes a candidate. Perhaps it’s a demerit. Either way, property taxes are a major political issue in Montana, with factions of state lawmakers floating the idea of a special session to adjust mill levies, activists renewing a ballot initiative push to cap property taxes and Democrats routinely criticizing the state’s GOP supermajority for not doing enough to keep Montana affordable.
Property taxes in Montana are generally due in halves on May 31 and Nov. 30, a schedule set by state law. Payments made after those dates generate a 2% penalty and draw interest “at a rate of 5/6 of 1% a month from and after the delinquency until paid,” according to statute.
All of the candidates who have made late property tax payments in the past are now current on those bills.
Sheehy, Little Belt Cattle
Tim Sheehy, a former Navy SEAL who now owns Bridger Aerospace, an aerial firefighting company, established Little Belt Cattle Company with friend Greg Putnam in 2020, tying together a series of rural parcels in Meagher County. Putnam, a fellow former SEAL, was a business manager at one of Sheehy’s prior companies, Ascent Vision Technologies.
Sheehy, a major donor to Republican candidates and political action committees, has sometimes listed his occupation as “cowboy” on campaign finance paperwork — an identifier Democrats have gleefully juxtaposed with his ownership of luxury properties on Flathead Lake and in Big Sky and his recent roots in the state.
Little Belt Cattle Company failed to make timely property tax payments on the four parcels every year since the ranch took over the land in 2020. Prior owners almost always paid the property taxes on time.
The total penalties and interest assessed for one parcel over a three-year period reached almost $900. Overall, the four parcels accrued a penalty of around $1,500 over that time. A person working in the Meagher County Treasurer’s Office said that most agricultural and ranching property owners promptly pay their property taxes and that the frequency and degree of Little Belt’s delinquency was unusual.
The ranch made its most recent payments on July 25 of this year, almost two full months after the statutory due date. A spokesperson for Sheehy’s campaign said only that the property taxes were paid in full.
It’s not the first evidence of non-payment of taxes at the ranch, either. In July, the Daily Beast reported that the 20,000-acre Little Belt Cattle Co. had never reported livestock or paid associated fees to the state. A spokesperson for Sheehy said then that not filing the report was an oversight, and MTFP later confirmed that the ranch had reported its livestock and paid the required fees.
The Republican congressman for Montana’s eastern district, Matt Rosendale, is widely expected to enter the Republican Senate primary, though he hasn’t made that official. The Dawson County treasurer said Rosendale had always made timely payments on his two properties near Glendive.
Tester, who owns a residence and an agricultural operation at T-Bone Farms in Big Sandy, made late property tax payments in the 2004 tax year but has otherwise paid on time.
Monica Tranel, a two-time former Olympian and prominent Democratic energy attorney, is making a second consecutive congressional bid against Republican incumbent Ryan Zinke, who represents Montana’s western U.S. House district.
Both candidates — or entities affiliated with them — were repeatedly late to pay property taxes.
Tranel and her husband, former state legislator Greg Lind, own two parcels of land in Missoula County, one undeveloped and the other developed with a large home. The couple has been late on at least one payment on the latter property every year since 2018, the first year for which records exist on the parcel, accruing $543 in penalties and interest. Tranel and Lind have also accrued $124 in penalties and interest due to late payments on the undeveloped property since 2017.
A spokesperson for Tranel did not directly acknowledge the late payments, only stating that Tranel and her husband’s property taxes are paid in full this year as in every year prior.
Zinke, whether under his and his wife’s name or under the name of two business entities he and his family control, has also repeatedly made late property tax payments, mostly on adjoining residential parcels in downtown Whitefish. He and two property holding companies, Double Tap LLC and Continental Divide International LLC, paid about $300 in penalties and interest on four properties since 2013. Almost half of that total came in 2018.
One of the Whitefish parcels registered to Zinke and his wife, Lolita, lists a mailing address in Santa Barbara, Calif., where Lolita Zinke declares a principal residence. That was a source of controversy for Zinke, whose opponents tried to paint him as more tied to California than Montana, in his ultimately successful 2022 election bid against Tranel.
A spokesperson for Zinke acknowledged past late payments but said there was never any intent not to pay property taxes.
“Their payments were late a couple times for routine life reasons (travel, misplaced mail, work schedule, refi, etc) but the bills were always paid in full and cleared up when realized,” the spokesperson said in an email. “Pretty run of the mill stuff.”