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Missoula City Council has authorized emptying the 1995 open space account, after more than two decades of spending the $5 million voter-approved bond.  

The ten members present Monday – representatives Jon Wilkins and Michelle Cares were absent – voted unanimously to spend the remaining $389,533.99 on the 12-acre Montana Rail Link property on Johnson Street that will complete the Bitterroot Branch Trail’s run from East Missoula to Lolo, and offer a new park for residents of the Franklin to the Fort neighborhood.

Elizabeth Erickson, Missoula’s open space bond acquisitions attorney, said the money has been saved since 2006 for just such a purchase – a park in that very  neighborhood.

“Per capita it is one of the lowest-served neighborhoods in terms of (parks) acreage available,” she said. “This is a great step in the right direction.”

Ethel MacDonald, a member of the Open Space Advisory Committee, said she’s happy to now give people simple directions to ride their bicycles from downtown to Hamilton.

She used to have to explain the several-step process of linking the broken halves, from North Avenue to near the Southgate Mall on South Avenue, but now she can tell them to just follow the trail.

“This could not be a more perfect project, really,” she said. “For at least 10 years we’ve been talking about getting those last few blocks of the trail.”

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In other action, Ward 2 representative Harlan Wells asked for further discussion on council’s resolution in response to a proposed copper mine that would be developed underneath a tributary of the Smith River.

He abstained from the vote, saying Missoula City Council was overstepping its role with the resolution.

Opponents of the mine argue that recreation brings plenty of money to the area and believe the mine would only harm the river, while supporters want the jobs and economic boon they think the mine would bring.

Wells felt uncomfortable with the resolution, which could influence affairs outside Missoula. As he told the crowd Monday night, his grandmother always said to “Think local, act local.”

Several members of the public commented in support of the resolution and council passed it 9-1, with Wells abstaining.

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Council also unanimously directed city staff to create a donation-based fund meant to help certain Missoula residents with their property taxes.

That fund would give Missoulians who are eligible for and receive one of four state-run tax relief programs a 25 percent credit on their summer tax bill.

Those relief programs are the Property Tax Assistance Program, the Elderly Homeowner Credit, the Disabled Veteran/Surviving Spouse Credit and the Low Income Energy Assistance program.

Ward 5 representative Julie Armstrong said during last week’s administration and finance committee the main goal of the fund is educating people about the four programs listed above, which many people qualify for, but know nothing about.

“If it never gets a dollar donated to it and we still bring awareness to the credits that are out there and we can reduce the stigma of financial assistance, then it will have done 90 percent of its job,” Armstrong said. 

They also approved the maintenance of a donated 7.5-acre park, which has yet to be built, in the Linda Vista neighborhood, on Alisha Drive.

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Council passed an exemption for a small section of Mary Avenue from the city’s complete streets policy, which requires all new road construction follow design standards that promote pedestrian and bicyclist safety.

The street will be extended through the current dead end at the railroad tracks to make it a connector between Brooks and Reserve Streets.

Bicycle/Pedestrian Program Manager Ben Weiss said in last week’s Public Works Committee meeting that residents and city staff reached a consensus to keep the street narrow and widen sidewalks, eliminating bike lanes.

National standards call for 14-foot-wide lanes for “sharrows,” which were the initial option on Mary Avenue, but Weiss said there just wasn’t enough room for those lanes and a boulevard and a good sidewalk.

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