Mirtha Becerra, Brent Sperry

Mirtha Becerra, Brent Sperry

The Republican-backed challenger for a Ward 2 Missoula City Council seat will advocate for a city government hiring freeze to keep property taxes from rising. Meanwhile, the Democrat-backed incumbent wants to keep hiring employees to keep pace with growth while pursuing a "tourist tax" to offset rising property taxes.

Brent Sperry is a fourth-generation Missoula native and has been endorsed by the Missoula County Republican Party. Sperry was recruited by current council member Jesse Ramos for his so-called Team Liberty. He is challenging incumbent Mirtha Becerra, who moved to Missoula in 2002 and was appointed to the council in 2017. She worked for 10 years as a planner for both the city and the county and sat on the board of an affordable housing nonprofit. She has been endorsed by the Missoula County Democrats, local labor unions and the Montana Conservation Voters' Action Fund.

Ward 2 is generally northwest Missoula and includes much of Missoula's Westside neighborhood as well as the Captain John Mullan neighborhood.

When asked what amount of spending he thinks would be reasonable for the city, Sperry said Missoula needs a "zero-based budget."

"Every department needs to look at the money they have been spending and not money they want to spend," he said. "That would go a long way. (The city) should be run more like a business. I believe you don't just ask for more stuff every year."

He said the city should consider costs it's already incurring before departments "start asking for new stuff."

Becerra said that Missoula's population is increasing, and that's why the city needs to keep adding employees to keep up. For example, she said, the city's development services staff is backlogged because of all the new development happening here. She said there are ways to structure a local-option sales tax so that tourist dollars offset the property taxes of residents, and she said she'll continue to pursue that.

"We need to look at the optimization of (city) departments," she said. "I would never reduce the number of (city) employees."

Sperry said he's an advocate for limited government, and he said he would advocate against Tax Increment Financing if elected.

"I'm pretty much against TIF funding altogether," he said. "The revenue that's generated would go much further if it was directly going to police and schools from the get-go."

He said companies like Marriott come here for the same reasons that Missoulians choose to live here: natural beauty and other amenities.

"I don't think that if they weren't going to get (TIF) help connecting a sewer to their building that they weren't going to build it," he said. "There are numerous examples of bad uses of (TIF) money and everybody that travels on Reserve Street travels under one of them every day." The idea behind such financing is that it's paid back by the increase in property taxes TIF-funded projects will generate. 

Becerra called Tax Increment Financing a "successful investment tool" in the community. She said Caras Park and Missoula's thriving downtown are examples of good use of TIF funds because they generate economic activity for the entire community. She also said the Old Sawmill District, which was revitalized partially with TIF money, now generates a lot of money for the community through property taxes.

"Right now we have more than 15 miles of sidewalks that have been paid for by TIF," she said. "Almost all of our parks have received some TIF support."

She said she'll continue to support using TIF funds for affordable housing, connectivity and perhaps tweak how much private investment is required by developers seeking those funds.

Becerra said she also wants the city to enforce background checks for guns and allocate funding toward reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. Sperry said a background check didn't prevent a mentally ill family member from getting a gun, and he said any climate change programs need to be voluntary rather than mandatory.

The general election is Tuesday, Nov. 5.

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