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You can bet the 3 million tourists who drop in on Missoula every year drop a few bucks on nachos and beers.

This year, Mayor John Engen would like to see the Montana Legislature adopt a local option sales tax that gives voters here the chance to levy a tax on "luxury items," like appetizers purchased in restaurants. The money could go toward infrastructure, he said – and it also could reduce property taxes.

"We are looking for ways to fund government that don't increase property tax burdens," Engen said in a recent interview.

In January, the Montana Legislature kicks off its biennial session, and the city and county of Missoula will be tuning in to protect their financial turf – and maybe even expand it in the case of the city. The county wants to ensure the philosophy in the "Big Bill" remains intact and that local government doesn't get any "unfunded mandates."

"We think the Big Bill was a good one because it said when things are good in the state, we all share in it, and when things are bad, we all share that, too," Commission chairwoman Jean Curtiss said this week.

The Big Bill divvies up money to cities and counties in Montana.


Local government in Missoula is largely Democratic, but the Legislature swings the other direction. So City Council president Marilyn Marler said a defensive position will be important this year for Missoula, although she also would like to see the results of cooperation.

"I hope that this is a chance to really make an extra effort to do some bipartisan projects, but we'll see," Marler said.

The city uses citywide "special districts" to pay for items such as roads and parks, and Marler said it will be important to protect that mechanism. For one thing, the state allows municipalities to levy property taxes through a formula that caps the mill increase at roughly half the rate of inflation.

Cities also receive revenue from streams that aren't capped, but many local elected officials have long argued the limit on mill levies handicaps cities. 

"We need to have the special districts to fund the work because nothing in the world rises at half the rate of inflation," Marler said.

Engen said special districts are a tool the city currently needs. However, he said the tool taps property taxes, whereas a local option sales tax would pull in dollars from other sources, including visitors.

"It's new money, and it comes from folks who are enjoying the services of the city of Missoula that all our residents are paying for in one way or another," Engen said. "So we like new money a lot."

John MacDonald, who lobbies on behalf of the city of Missoula, said the local option tax may have legs this session. In the past, legislators on both sides of the aisle have had reservations about it, and for different reasons; this time, he said, it may have broader support.

"More people are realizing that this is a method also to potentially reduce some of the property tax burden," MacDonald said.


Curtiss said county officials will track a whole host of bills, including some initiatives that were in the mix during the 2013 session.

One gets at the best way to let telecommunications companies tap into a $10 million pot of money being referred to as "stranded 9-1-1 money." Those dollars are collected from people's cellphone bills and set aside "to make sure 9-1-1 systems work," Curtiss said.

"But they're also available for providers ... to put in equipment and maybe bury different lines or whatever they need to do to make sure 9-1-1 works," she said.

Money has accumulated in a fund, and Curtiss said the county is working on the best way to help providers tap into the funds in a way that's fair to both large and small companies.

The county also will look to protect various funds that have bolstered the local economy and successful startup companies as well as conservation efforts, she said. Among those are targeted economic development districts, the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund, and reclamation and development grants through a program of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

In the past, she said, old mining projects sometimes would misplace creeks. In the Ninemile, the county used a DNRC grant to restore Martina Creek last year.

"Martina Creek was just awesome the day we were up there. The day they opened it up to flow where it was supposed to, fish swam up it," Curtiss said.

Also on the front burner this year: Updating the rates the state pays the county for a portion of the detention center; clarifying the administration of storm water discharge permits; and tracking agricultural uses in subdivision regulations, as well as other planning and land use matters.


Marler said she also wants to help protect the work Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks does. Even though the city of Missoula is an urban environment, the conservation work the agency undertakes is important to the lifestyle here, she said.

Engen said rental safety and support for alternative energy are also priorities. The city will track gun bills and proposed legislation that affects eminent domain law, too.

At the Capitol, Missoula has been called the "red headed stepchild" of Montana, and Engen said he doesn't need to show up in person to testify on bills. In fact, it may be counterproductive.

"Sometimes, it may not be the best thing to have the mayor of Missoula there to make a sale," Engen said.

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Higher Education Reporter

Higher education / University of Montana reporter for the Missoulian.