The county of Missoula won’t place a gas tax on the November ballot, and that decision got a cool reception from the city of Missoula on Wednesday.
“I think it’s a real missed opportunity to let the people of the county decide, and I guess I’m kind of surprised,” Missoula City Council president Marilyn Marler said.
“They characterize it as asking county residents to take care of a city problem, but that doesn’t acknowledge that everyone who lives in the city also lives in the county.”
The city planned to use revenue from the tax to fund sidewalk projects in the midst of ever-increasing need and ever-decreasing resources. But the county can’t be held responsible for infrastructure of roads and sidewalks within city limits, Commissioner Jean Curtiss said.
“We’re in a different place than they are,” she said. “They have this problem that they’re trying to fix and the county hasn’t identified a transportation infrastructure need that is requiring the revenue they need. We really feel like those kinds of projects need to be citizen-driven projects.”
Marler said the commissioners’ stance doesn’t seem to recognize that the county would realize 40 percent of the revenues from a tax of 2 cents per gallon on non-diesel fuel. It was expected to reap a total of $1 million a year.
“Maybe they don’t feel they have $400,000 worth of needs for county roads,” Marler said. “Maybe they didn’t understand the proposal and they just don’t have any road maintenance needs, I don’t know.”
A letter explaining the county’s decision was signed Wednesday morning by commission chair Bill Carey, Curtiss and fellow commissioner Michele Landquist. It was written as a response to a formal resolution Marler read into the record and other councilors championed at a commissioners’ public meeting on June 27.
“We have weighed the public and council comments we have received on the matter and have decided against putting the gas tax question on the ballot in November,” the commissioners’ letter read. “We appreciate the care you took in articulating your thoughts on the matter and we would like to do the same.”
The proposed tax “deepens a divide between urban and rural residents by rolling rural residents into your proposed solution,” the letter said. “Missoula County has worked diligently over the last decade to build a bridge with these residents and businesses. Rural residents, commissioners and staff have made great strides in fostering communication and civic participation in the rural areas of Missoula County.”
Still, the decision wasn’t an easy one, Curtiss said.
“I think it’s always difficult because we understand the problem that they’re facing with trying to finance sidewalks and that they’re looking at different options,” she said. “The problem was, by helping them to fix their problem, it created one for us.”
Money generated by a gas tax has to be used in road right-of-ways, which often doesn’t apply to trails in the county, Curtiss said.
“So it doesn’t address that problem that folks have said, ‘Please continue to maintain and build new trails,’ ” Curtiss said.
She said the county considered putting the matter to a countywide vote, “but the danger is the majority of the voting public in Missoula County lives in the city, and ensuring that the voice of the minority is heard too can’t always be done on the ballot.”
Commissioners hear frequent laments that county residents in rural areas don’t use, for example, the Fort Missoula Regional Park but they still help pay for it.
“We put that on the ballot, the citizens voted for it, and there’s dedicated money that goes to that now,” she said. “So part of this is making sure the voice of the minority is heard, too.”
Marler was unsure what the city’s next step will be. “We’ll have to talk about it,” she said.
While there has been discussion of mounting a petition drive to force the issue onto the ballot, that’s not something that can’t be orchestrated by the City Council.
“So it depends on what people want to do as volunteers,” said Marler, who added she’s unaware of any groundswell support for such a move.
Neither Curtiss nor Marler think the gas tax flap will damage the relationship between Missoula’s city and county governments.
“I don’t think so,” Marler said. “We disagree on things. Sometimes people disagree.”
“We hope that it doesn’t,” said Curtiss. “We hope they understand why we’re making this decision. We want to continue to talk and continue to find ways to work together.”
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at email@example.com.