A Missoula City Council committee voted to advance a proposed $15 million, general obligation bond to pay for open space, and a $500,000 yearly perpetual levy for conservation lands maintenance, but not without debate about the impact on affordable housing.
The decision by the Committee of the Whole sends the proposed tax increases to the full council, which will vote Monday on whether to make a recommendation to the Missoula County Commissioners.
If the city and county agree, the measures will appear on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The bond would allow the city and county to acquire public land for open space and help private landowners protect their land for wildlife and agriculture. The 4 mill levy would only apply to taxpayers within city limits, and would be used for protecting, enhancing and maintaining existing city conservation lands.
But while most spoke in favor of the measures Wednesday, council member Jesse Ramos questioned whether putting more land beyond the reach of developers would exacerbate Missoula's affordable housing crunch.
“There are pros and cons to this, but the main cons everybody’s overlooking is what is the impact this will have on affordable housing on the city,” he said. “Everyone knows supply and demand. When you take developable land off the table, it drives up the price. It’s basic economics.
"Missoula is surrounded by Forest Service land. It’s nice and feels nice to do this, but do we want to be a gem for the rich where only the wealthy can live here and enjoy it? I see us giving affordable housing lip service. This is directly counterproductive.”
Ramos noted that Missoula’s population continues to grow, and an open space bond will eat up more and more land.
Julie Gardner, a real estate agent, said the Missoula Organization of Realtors is “really excited” about another open space bond because it provides “opportunities” for economic development.
“Companies trying to recruit employees here look to the quality of life and open space and public access as a way to get folks across the country to want to locate here,” she said. “I hear that all the time. That’s a real thing, not just sort of a talking point.”
She said the 2006 open space bond "saw over 5,300 acres opened to public access, added 19 miles of public trails through the use of the bonds, protected 40 miles of waterways and over 1,000 acres of wetlands. And nearly 15,000 acres of wildlife habitat were protected, along with 9,000 acres of agricultural land in the county, including 4,200 acres of the county’s most productive and important soils. So it’s been an amazing success.”
Greg Tollefson, a former executive director of the nonprofit Five Valleys Land Trust, said the open space bonds that were passed in 1980, 1995 and 2006 were “gracious civic enterprises connecting generations.”
And Mike Foote, a local ultra-runner and Five Valleys Land Trust board member, said Missoula is a thriving community because of open space and conservation lands where people can recreate easily on a daily basis.
“It’s important to continue to invest in that legacy,” he said.
In part due to a lack of affordable land, housing prices in Missoula have skyrocketed in the last decade, while wages have stagnated. Ramos raised concerns about higher taxes, saying the city’s parks district budget has grown by roughly 100 percent every year since 2010.
Missoula Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler said she believed that affordable housing can still be developed while open space is protected.
“We will look to the council’s role and leadership in looking inward and to high density (housing),” Gaukler said.
Council member Gwen Jones said that many people she’s spoken to who are in the business of building affordable housing are supportive of the bond and the levy.
“Anything that comes near affordable housing is highly complicated,” she said. “It’s not just a simple label. Affordable housing advocates are actually in favor of this open space bond. I don’t think our staff is ever going to bring us a proposal that is going to cancel out affordable housing. It’s a core value in Missoula. It’s a huge component for future generations. We all have pocketbooks that we’re trying to stretch.”
Several other council members spoke at length about how they supported both the bond and the levy, saying they would be responsible investments in Missoula’s future as well as an economic driver because companies would use open space as a tool to attract and retain workers.
In the end, Ramos and council member Michelle Cares voted against advancing the bond. Ramos also voted against advancing the levy.
The proposed county-wide, 20-year, $15 million general obligation bond is estimated to cost $17.84 per year on a home with an assessed market value of $265,000. It would cost $6.73 per year on a $100,000 home and $13.46 per year on a $200,000 home.
The proposed City-Wide Conservation and Responsible Stewardship Perpetual Mill Levy of 4 mills is estimated to add $14.31 per year to a $265,000 home, $10.80 per year to a $200,000 home and $5.40 a year to a $100,000 home.
Missoula County voters have passed several large bond measures this decade that are still on the tax rolls. The combined $158 million Smart Schools 2020 bonds were approved by voters in 2015, and a $42 million Parks and Trails bond was passed the year before in 2014. In 2016, voters approved a $30 million bond for a new Missoula Public Library.
Voters last approved an open space bond of $10 million in 2006, but the city and county each have around $320,000 left from that measure.