The decision approving new taxes that's likely to come at Monday night's Missoula City Council meeting was perhaps sealed three years ago.

That's when the council took an unusual turn and rejected a special improvement district, or SID, to fix Hillview Way. Some neighbors pleaded with council members to find a more equitable way to distribute the $3.3 million cost, and they listened and voted down the SID.

This year, Mayor John Engen proposed a new way to collect money: "special districts" for roads and parks, kind of like special improvement districts, but for the entire city. His budget calls for some $200,000 to be raised for parks, and $300,000 to be raised for streets.

The districts represent just 1 percent of the general fund, but they're a hot topic because they aren't capped at half the rate of inflation - unlike municipal taxes. That means they're generally welcomed by folks who like the work the city is doing and don't want to see it hindered by the cap, but they're shunned by folks who see the city as wasteful.

Opponents don't look like they mounted a successful protest, despite the strained economy. If property owners representing more than 50 percent of the value of the district protested, the districts would have to be shelved for one year. But last week, city officials estimated the protests won't represent more than 10 percent of the district's value. The final tally will be noted at the Monday meeting.

Minority members of the City Council have aired other ways to come up with the same amount of money, such as levying higher property taxes or counting attrition in the personnel budget. Also, the Montana Department of Revenue assigned a higher value than budgeted to property in Missoula, and some councilors want that extra $410,745 to replace the special district money. The mayor wants the extra money put into savings.

Last week, Councilman Jon Wilkins suggested shelving the entire idea for special districts until more discussion has taken place. He wants income from the districts to go toward more amenities - not toward maintaining the status quo.

"I think they need to be thrown out and started over again," Wilkins said at a committee meeting.

No matter how loudly Wilkins or members of the public say so, though, the chances they will convince a majority of councilors look like slim to none. The other ideas floated by minority members in an editorial don't look to have caught fire with folks in the majority either.

***

Hillview Way still looms in the background, for one, and other councilors have other reasons.

Councilman Jason Wiener wants to care for the trees in the city, and said the city has a responsibility to pass them on to the next generation in good shape. Neglecting them would be irresponsible and cost more money later.

"The urban forest is an asset that was bequeathed to us by a prior generation," Wiener said at the committee meeting.

Councilman Ed Childers said he wants special districts because of the limit the state imposes on cities' ability to raise property taxes. It means the city is always falling behind, he said, and that situation can't be sustained forever. The gas tax has been stagnant, and so far, bigger Montana cities like Missoula can't tap into a local option sales tax, either.

"It's important to me to be able to fund the services that the city provides, and not let everything fall apart," Childers said. "And to do that, I'd like to hear people say that they're certainly willing to keep their city all put together so that in two or three or five years when everything looks rosy, we're not going to have to go back and fix all the things we didn't do."

Many people have begged the council to vote for the districts to keep Missoula a great place to live, and they'll turn out Monday. At the nighttime public hearing, plenty of Missoulians also will oppose the special districts, in part because there is no cap.

Unless there's a new and compelling argument to be made against them, though, it doesn't look like district opponents will change the minds of council folks who

favor them.

"I'm thinking that they probably will pass," said Councilwoman Marilyn Marler.

***

So the more pertinent public comments Monday might not be from those who simply favor or oppose the districts, but from those who offer the council suggestions. Like what to do - or not do - with the money, how much or how little to take, and how quickly or slowly.

Originally, city officials said the income wasn't tied to parks and streets budgets, but Mayor John Engen later said the link will be direct. The plan, he said, is to next year credit the general fund for parks and roads based on income from the districts.

Councilman Dave Strohmaier, who has put forward several different budget alternatives for the sake of discussion, said the question before the council is whether to use the money to maintain the status quo - the usual parks and streets budgets - or to do more.

"Do we look for ways to fund new projects within this fiscal year budget?" Strohmaier said.

One idea he plans to present Monday is using a portion of the income for streets, some $60,000, to help people pay for city-mandated assessments for sidewalks, curbs and gutters. His full proposal is with this story on Missoulian.com. He also plans to pitch using some $40,000 of the parks budget to help the urban forest.

"What I have offered I think is meant to acknowledge and recognize some legitimate citizen concerns that I've heard," Strohmaier said. "I think the spirit of what I offer goes back to my original interest in special districts in the first place. For me, that means making sure that the people I represent in Ward 1 are getting the work done they need on the ground, and doing so in a way in which the costs are shared equitably among us all."

The council takes public comment at 7 p.m. Monday in Council Chambers, 140 W. Pine St. It's likely to adopt the 2011 budget - in some form - on Monday night because of statutory timelines, according to city communications director Ginny Merriam.

"State budget law says the budget must be adopted within 45 days after the state Department of Revenue supplies the city with the certified taxable values everyone waits for. The Department of Revenue supplied them July 31. Sept. 13 is the 45th day," Merriam wrote in an e-mail.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

 

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