The gas tax resolution passed Monday, and along with it some fireworks at the public microphone – and subsequent gavelling by Missoula City Council president Marilyn Marler.
Kandi Matthew-Jenkins was telling councilors they should set aside half of their $12,000 salaries for roads and sidewalks when Marler, chairing the meeting in the mayor’s absence, turned to her own microphone.
Matthew-Jenkins, who has berated councilors before, began to argue: “Don’t you ... .”
Marler banged her gavel. She told Matthew-Jenkins she had planned to give her a 30-second warning, but because of her outburst, the president shut her down instead: “Take your seat.”
In line right behind Matthew-Jenkins, though, was Patricia Hogan, who came to the council meeting to speak in favor of the gas tax resolution because it places the burden for paying for sidewalks on cars. It asks Missoula County commissioners to place a 2-cent-per-gallon gas tax – with an exemption for diesel – on the ballot, an amount Hogan said is hardly noticeable.
“We’re going to have to come up with this money somewhere, and I think this is a really good, fair, painless resolution to pursue,” Hogan said.
Ten out of 11 councilors present agreed with her and voted yes; Councilman Adam Hertz was the holdout, saying pushback from commissioners makes him think this isn’t the right time.
When Marler called for more public comment after Hogan spoke, she waited a long time for anyone else to come up to the microphone. She said the loudest person doesn’t get to drown out the quieter person in a public meeting.
“Everybody should get a chance to speak in a civil society,” Marler said. “That’s why we have rules of order.”
The idea for a gas tax came about because councilors get frequent requests from constituents for more sidewalks, but when they approve sidewalk projects, people have a hard time paying. So councilors were looking for a way to pay that more fairly distributes the cost.
Montana law allows county commissioners to place a gas tax for 2 cents a gallon at the most on the ballot and share the proceeds between the city and county for transportation infrastructure. With the resolution, city councilors formally request commissioners put the matter on the ballot.
And it’s much-needed, said Councilman Jason Wiener. For 30 years, there’s been an effort in the country to denigrate not only public infrastructure but the ways the public pays for it. The needs keep growing, and he said the city has few options to pay for the things it builds.
“We have neglected it (public infrastructure). We have allowed it to fall into disrepair, and we’ve been irresponsible to do so,” Wiener said.
Councilman Mike O’Herron, though, said another way to pay for sidewalks – with property taxes – still was on the table because the council hadn’t said it would drop that taxing idea if the gas tax passed. He supported the resolution, but he said he can’t support both taxes; he said the council needs to make a more clear argument for the way the gas tax will be put into place and if it extinguishes the other tax.
“I’m not clear on how it would work, so I think it’s going to be hard to get the commissioners and the voters behind it,” O’Herron said.
City councilors have said commissioners could use the money on county roads, trails or even as a way to decrease property taxes. Two cents per gallon would bring in an estimated $1 million a year, and the resolution talks about splitting the dollars with 60 percent going to the city – where 75 percent of gas in the county is sold – and 40 percent going to the county.
Many tourists and visitors come through Missoula and enjoy the city and its infrastructure, and Marler argued that those guests should contribute by paying a little extra for gas while they’re here.
“We have a beautiful city with lots of nice infrastructure with maintenance needs, and it’s paid for mainly by property taxes,” Marler said.
In other business, the council also sent to the Planning Board a directive to draft an amendment to its zoning code that changes notification procedures for zoning amendments.
The matter raised some opposition because people such as Councilman Jon Wilkins fear neighbors won’t hear about possible changes to the rules for building so-called “granny suites” if they don’t get certified mail. That piece could go away with small changes initiated by the council.
“This is just another way to keep issues in the dark and not let citizens know,” Wilkins said.
Councilman Bob Jaffe, though, said the notion that council is keeping its work under wraps is “preposterous.” Zoning changes bring all manner of postings, mailings, meeting announcements, legal ads and online alerts to the public, and the change will mean flexibility. Earlier this year, both Jaffe and Hertz requested media coverage of the discussion about accessory dwelling units, or ADUs. On Monday, Jaffe said keeping citizens in the dark wasn’t on council’s agenda.
“That’s never been the practice of the city council,” said Jaffe, who also runs a public listserv. “There’s excessive effort to make sure people are notified.”
The council is expected to take up possible changes to rules for ADUs once it has streamlined notification procedures.