Missoula City Council stockimage

Missoula City Council Chambers.

The city of Missoula upped its parks and road district taxes again this year, continuing a growing trend since the inception of the districts in 2011. The cost of the districts has ballooned by about 1,300% in the nine years since they were formed.

The parks and road districts cost taxpayers a total of $500,000 when created in 2011. The total for 2020 as approved Monday night was about $7.04 million.

While the increase seems shocking, it may not be as dramatic as it appears on the surface.

Council member John DiBari pointed out that the growth in districts was made up for elsewhere in the budget.

“If these amounts of money were not assessed through the Road District, it’s not that they wouldn't be funded, they’d just be funded through the general fund,” DiBari said.

City chief administrative officer Dale Bickell said the huge amounts of growth have been because the city decided to start funding the parks and public works budgets from those special districts rather than growing the general fund.

“The biggest change was last year’s budget, one thing that the city used to do was that Public Works was all in the general fund, so last year the council changed that,” Bickell said. “They moved all general fund support to the Road District, so that decreased the amount of the levy in the general fund.”

The districts were created to fund maintenance of parks and roads. Both districts encompass the entire city of Missoula. Both were created simultaneously in a type of reverse-ballot. Notices were sent to all properties, and if less than 50% formally protested the creation in writing, then it would be considered authorized by residents.

In an informational packet prepared by the city in 2010, the estimated tax on a house worth $225,000 was about $13. Now, it would be about $165, according to publicly accessible property tax data.

In Montana, Missoula has the lowest percentage of its budget funded by special district funds compared to other similar cities like Billings and Bozeman. Most other cities began using special districts before Missoula, and have moved the funding for things like parks and roads — among other things — out of their general funds and into the special district funds.

Other cities also calculate the way the taxes are collected. Missoula follows a similar formula as it uses for property taxes, basing the fee off the value of the property. Other cities, Bickell said, use other factors like the amount of road frontage.

According to a presentation by Bickell and city finance director Leigh Griffing during the city’s budgeting process, half of Helena’s budget is funded through special districts, while Missoula’s is only about a sixth of the total budget.

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