Missoulians want a lot more sidewalks, but they can cost an arm and a leg.
The situation also is "politically horrible," those involved say, and leads to some nasty meetings in the Public Works Department and City Council Chambers.
"Some of my least favorite things have been when people come in and say, ‘I can't believe you're going to assess me $13,000 for a sidewalk,' or more," said Councilwoman Marilyn Marler.
The city of Missoula always has paid for sidewalks by charging the adjacent property owner, she said, and these days, it can be gobs of money. It's especially pricey for people who live on a corner.
Marler and Councilman Bob Jaffe said the city has tried to mitigate the problem, but it's never enough.
"It's by far the most unfair thing the city does," Jaffe said.
"Meanwhile, people want more sidewalks. It's a conundrum," Marler said.
So since September, a subcommittee has been meeting to drum up some palatable ways to pay for sidewalks. On Wednesday, Marler will present options - including a local option gas tax of 1 or 2 cents - to the Public Works Committee. Eventually, at least one and possibly more of the ideas will come before the full council for a public hearing, but Marler said she's eager for the public's response to the ideas and remaining concerns.
The four main ideas aren't mutually exclusive, and the ones other councilors find acceptable will be fleshed out more.
The proposals are revenue neutral, Jaffe said. Basically, in the course of a year, the city assesses roughly $800,000 to build sidewalks. At this point, he said the proposal isn't to pull in more money for sidewalks.
Rather, he and Marler said the options intend to spread the cost among more members of the community instead of asking a few to shoulder a large burden.
"People complain when it's more than $2,000," Marler said.
Option No. 1 is Jaffe's "health insurance model," which pools city funding and money from property owners. It would increase taxes to all city property owners to keep building sidewalks at the same rate. The city would assess a home valued at $225,000 another $17 a year.
"The $17 a year is like your premium," Marler said.
In a presentation, she described the model like this:
• For your sidewalk, you pay $300, like a "deductible."
• After your deductible is met, the city pays 70 percent.
• The property owner has a 30 percent "co-pay."
• The "maximum out of pocket" is $2,000 (or $3,000, or another figure depending on how the council decides to move forward).
• The city pays the excess, up to $15,000.
Residential projects rarely go over $15,000, but Jaffe said commercial projects do and that's a complication. The solution proposed is that after the city pays that $15,000 "maximum lifetime benefit," the cost reverts to the property owner.
Marler said this proposal brings up a couple of issues the council will have to address. Does the public want to generate more than $800,000 a year for sidewalks, for instance? And what is the best way to put a plan in place that's fair to people who are currently paying sidewalk assessments?
"The fact is there's no way to go back to the beginning of time and rebate everybody who's ever bought a sidewalk," Marler said. "We can try to make things equitable in the short term."
Jaffe, though, said even people who already have paid for sidewalks and won't benefit from the program immediately can take advantage of the help in, say, 15 years, when they need sidewalk repairs.
The second idea on the table is a local option fuel tax, and that option has an added hurdle but possibly wide backing.
Marler said she doesn't want to speak for others, but the revenue source has "bipartisan support, if I dare say so, on City Council."
"We can't just create a local option fuel tax. We have to get the commissioners on board, too," Marler said.
The Missoula County commissioners would have to place the local option fuel tax on the ballot and see if it passes.
Another 2 cents would bring in $800,000 annually, according to the Pedestrian Subcommittee's estimates. Marler said the money would be shared between the city and the county, and one preliminary idea floated in the county is using its portion toward trails.
The third proposal aims to be fair to people already paying off assessments: "We would retroactively apply the ‘health insurance formula' to their original assessment."
Property owners would get a tax rebate. The rebate would only apply to active assessments, though, so someone who just paid off a huge amount wouldn't be able to receive the rebate. Paying for the rebate would cost another $7 a year on a home valued at $225,000.
Marler said other ideas are finding grants, such as ones from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant program. The Missoula Redevelopment Agency also wants to help in its active districts.
"In recent years as people have been clamoring for more sidewalks they don't want to pay for, MRA has said we have money for improving urban renewal districts," Marler said.
One possibility is coming up with a five-year plan for help from the agency.
At this point, the recommendation to the Public Works Committee is to implement the health insurance model and the rebate for fairness, and research the local option gas tax and grants.
Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, email@example.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.