Missoula ranks high in government spending, but has a smaller tax base than other Montana cities, and that puts an increasingly heavy burden on those who pay property taxes.
So said a University of Montana economist in a presentation to the Missoula Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.
While rising taxes aren't an issue exclusive to Missoula, expanding the tax base with new growth and construction would help city and county leaders keep pace with the rising cost of providing services and fulfilling community goals.
“We have higher mill rates in Missoula because we have higher spending, but that’s not all there is to it,” said Patrick Barkey. “Another reason why the rates are high is because our tax base, comparatively speaking, is a little low.”
Barkey, director of UM's Bureau of Business and Economic Research, raised the issue during the chamber’s annual look at Missoula’s economic standing, where it wants to go and how much the community can afford in pursuing its goals.
Voters recently passed a $42 million parks and trails bond, and will likely consider several other community funding requests in coming years, including a $10 million open space bond, a $25 million library expansion, and a $162 million bond from Missoula County Public Schools.
Nick Kaufman, board chairman for the Missoula Chamber of Commerce and vice president of the WGM Group, added other goals to the list. The city needs a new fire truck, he noted, and efforts to purchase Mountain Water continue.
“There’s no local option tax here – no sales taxes here,” said Kaufman. “Our elected officials primarily rely on property taxes to do what they need to do, and the only way to increase our tax base is through new construction.”
Missoula is entering what some have described as a new growth cycle, with 2015 shaping up to be one of the strongest years in recent memory. Employers are finding their way to the Garden City, and a robust list of new construction is looming in the months ahead.
With growth in mind, the chamber is exploring new ways to approach economic development and capitalize off the growth, including the need to diversify the economy and focus on creating a sense of place.
John Lavey, project manager with the Sonoran Institute, said few cities the size of Missoula succeed in landing a single large employer. Rather, he said, they’re better served nurturing existing businesses and growing from within.
“We simply don’t have the economic gravity that some of these other places do,” Lavey said. “But there are opportunities that come from this. We know the quality of life that living in the West affords.”
New technology that allows workers greater mobility and freedom could play strongly into Missoula’s future. Lavey described the trend as the mobility of lifestyle, and suggested it could reshape the fabric of cities like Missoula if they plan for the future.
He cited a recent study by the Sonoran Institute that surveyed 476 businesses representing 60 communities in Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho and Montana. It found that quality of life plays a leading role in where business owners decide to set up shop.
“This might have implications for our nation the same way the Industrial Revolution did all those years ago,” Lavey said. “The overall quality of a community is one of the driving factors that attract people to a place.”
Among the perks that attract residents, including business owners, Lavey named access to amenities, open space and trails, transportation options, character and a sense of place.
“Think of them as principles, not prescriptions,” Lavey said. “There are strategies you can do to help provide that sense of place and authenticity people are looking for.”
The topic was timely, with the city drafting its new “Our Missoula” growth plan. Laval Means, a senior planner with Missoula’s Development Services, said the plan could help the city achieve its goals and improve its economic health.
“A big part of the consideration of what brings people to Missoula, keeps us living in Missoula, and can attract new jobs is that essence of quality of life and the importance of having the appropriate housing and amenities,” said Means.