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Missoula city committee wants county to put gas tax on ballot

Missoula city committee wants county to put gas tax on ballot

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The Missoula City Council is still revving its engine for a local option gas tax.

On Wednesday, councilors in the Public Works Committee meeting discussed ways they could convince Missoula County commissioners to vote to place such a measure on the November ballot. It’s one way to get the 2-cent maximum tax approved.

“I don’t think they (commissioners) need a glossy brochure to tell them why this is a good idea,” said committee chairman Jason Wiener.

He said pitching the message to the public would be different from persuading commissioners, who are well aware of the city’s funding limitations. Wiener said he might be “a little overly optimistic,” but he believes the council can make a strong argument to commissioners.

The committee didn’t take action Wednesday but plans to take up the matter again next week.

The idea has come up in the past, but it’s never gotten a green light. Most recently, a committee working on paying for sidewalks brought up the idea, and on Wednesday, Public Works director Steve King told councilors that infrastructure maintenance is the foundation for the draft revenue request.

“Federal and state motor fuel tax rates have not been increased since 1993, but the cost of street maintenance has increased substantially,” reads one portion of the draft resolution.

State law authorizes a local option tax to be levied on gasoline a couple of different ways – but Montana Code Annotated 7-14-301 doesn’t mention diesel. So Councilman Bob Jaffe said the exemption on diesel takes away opposition from truckers, who came out against the tax last time it was proposed.

The resolution also notes that the population in the city makes up 61 percent of Missoula County, and more than 75 percent of the non-diesel motor fuel that’s sold in the county that would be subject to local option motor fuel taxes is currently sold within city limits.

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While councilors seemed to agree they wanted to be able to levy the tax and bring in an estimated $800,000 – state law says the county and city must split the proceeds – it was clear the battle will remain an uphill one.

For one thing, Councilman Mike O’Herron said the resolution itself wasn’t clearly spelling out the reason for the tax. For instance, if money will go toward sidewalks, that word should be at the very top of the resolution, and the intent needed to be “crystal clear.”

“We should be saying Missoula values sidewalks, and we need ways to fund it, right off the bat,” O’Herron said.

The schools made a great case for needing money to fix infrastructure, so voters approved levies in recent elections, he said. Unless the city presents an “unmet need,” the resolution won’t stand a chance, he said.

In making its case for sidewalks, O’Herron suggested the city shouldn’t start with the solution. Rather, it should begin with the problem – say, the lack of sidewalks in the city – and the opportunity to correct it.

“We have to make a super compelling case if there’s something people should get out and vote for,” O’Herron said.

Councilman Dick Haines agreed, and he named at least one place in the county that could use the money: “Funds from this would help Seeley Lake.”

Councilman Jon Wilkins said he spoke with commissioners about a month ago, and they weren’t receptive, but he, too, sees ways the county could use its funds. Seeley is trying to establish itself as a Nordic skiing center, and it’s possible funds could support part of that endeavor; a trail to Lolo has been discussed, and money could go to that project, too.

The current draft of the resolution notes that the city of Missoula proposes to share the revenue with the county, with the city taking in 60 percent of the revenue. Councilors offered some changes to the resolution and plan to take it up again at a later Public Works Committee meeting.

“There should be some acknowledgement of the limitations we have in generating revenue,” said Councilman Bob Jaffe.

If councilors can’t convince commissioners to put the measure on the ballot, residents may launch a petition for a ballot initiative, according to state law.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

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