Supporters and opponents of a proposed countywide 2-cent gasoline tax voiced their opinions on the matter in front of Missoula County Commissioners on Thursday.
The county is taking public comment to decide whether to place the gas tax on the June 2 primary ballot in Missoula County. County voters would have to approve the tax. County staff have estimated the tax would raise about $1.1 million every year, with $400,000 coming from tourists. The money would be used for sorely-needed road maintenance and repair and would be split evenly between the city and the county.
Jeremy Keene, the city’s public works director, said a person who drives about 13,400 miles a year and gets 25 miles per gallon would end up paying about $11 per year. He noted the city’s roads are in bad shape in most areas, and estimated that the city and county road maintenance funds are underfunded by about $47 million per year and $34 million per year, respectively.
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“We’re scarcely spending half of what we need to more cost-effectively maintain roads,” he said. “It is much more cost effective to maintain roads before they require major reconstruction.”
Commissioner Josh Slotnick said he’s heard “loud and clear” that raising property taxes is not an option.
Members of the public then gave their comments.
“Our infrastructure, particularly our transportation infrastructure, is in poor shape,” said Chris Anderson, president of DJ&A Engineering in Missoula. “A gasoline tax is one of the fairest taxes I know of. Those that use the roads pay for the maintenance of it and pay for it as they put gas in their vehicle."
He noted that Missoula County sees about 1.5 million tourists every year.
"A huge part of this is when people come to visit from out of the county. When tourists come to visit, they pay (the gas tax) as well," he said. "They use the roads, but they’re not paying property taxes. They’re not paying their fair share.”
Anderson noted that state law requires at least 1% of revenue from the gas tax to go to gas distributors to make up for losses, and he said that should be higher.
“We don’t have enough tools in our tool belt to keep up with rising demand,” he continued. “Investments now will pay tremendous dividends later. I see this as a tremendous opportunity to leverage federal dollars, to bring money to our county that would otherwise not be available. A good example is the federal $13 million BUILD Grant the county got. A lot of other funding is only available if you have a local match.”
Several representatives of petroleum distribution companies spoke against the proposed tax.
Dirk Cooper, the vice president of Hi-Noon Petroleum and president of the Montana Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association, said small station operators next to the Missoula County line will lose business to competitors over the county line who can charge less for gas. He said many people will “drive 10 miles to save a penny on gas”, and that means they’ll buy fewer snacks and other products from the gas stations they’re avoiding.
“That creates a very anti-competitive environment for anybody who is close to the county line and an advantage for their competitor,” he said. “Don’t fool yourself, people driving up from the Bitterroot will stop for gas before they get into Missoula County, so I think the volume of fuel that will be sold in Missoula will probably decline based on that.”
He said his association has supported statewide gas taxes because they know roads need maintenance and property taxes are already a burden.
Earl Allen, a resident of Turah east of Missoula, said he feels like the wishes of city voters are being foisted upon county voters.
“My voice and my vote for legislature and other issues are often diluted and drowned out by the population of the folks in the city proper, and that’s my concern here,” Allen said. “By putting this on the county-wide ballot, my concern is you’ll allow the population of the city to overwhelm the folks outside the city to pass a regressive tax which will have a greater effect on the folks out where I live, folks who commute into town every day for work.”
Jim Bachand, the CEO of the Missoula Organization of Realtors, said they commissioned a survey that found 69 percent of respondents saw a need for increased road funding and 62 percent supported a gas tax.
“Realtors are very concerned about the property tax burden on property owners, and they’re also concerned about the condition of roads,” he said.
Anderson, the supporter of the tax from DJ&A Engineering, said he knows opponents will say the county and city need to be more efficient with the money they already have.
“But that’s only part of the problem, just like this gas tax is only part of the solution,” he said. “We need to find more revenue streams, and this presents us with the opportunity to do that locally here in Missoula.”
The commissioners took no action on Thursday. They’ll meet again on Thursday, March 5, at 2 p.m. in the Sophie Moiese Room of the County Courthouse to take more public comment before voting on whether to put the issue before voters.