With significant heartburn, the Missoula County Commission agreed on Monday to put a $15 million, open space bond on the Nov. 6 ballot.
The unanimous vote came after an hour and a half of testimony, with the vast majority of people speaking in favor of putting the bond question before the voters.
Commissioners agreed that the bond proponents had taken the necessary steps to move the bond forward, but a teary Jean Curtiss wondered aloud about what she sees as more pressing needs in the community — particularly social services that have experienced significant losses due to budget cuts at the state and federal level — amid current property tax increases.
“As a county commissioner, I must weigh a variety of community values and needs as I consider additional property taxes,” Curtiss said. “In 2017, the increased property value assessments (from the state Department of Revenue) raised property taxes … and just to maintain the current level of services that we provide, the county has to raise taxes this year.
“I feel like we have to weigh what’s the common good, shared benefit to most. What is in the interest of all? Think about whose voices are not being heard: the elderly, the disabled, the hungry, the homeless, veterans, those who live with a mental illness. We know that open space is good for all of us but if I am going to raise taxes, who am I helping?”
The proposed county-wide open space bond would last for 20 years and add an estimated $13.46 per year on a home with an assessed market value of $200,000.
It’s being considered in conjunction with a City-Wide Conservation and Responsible Stewardship Perpetual Mill Levy of 4 mills that would raise $500,000 annually for conservation lands management. If approved by city voters, it would add $10.80 per year to the taxes on a $200,000 home.
A steady stream of about 30 people representing hunters, anglers, runners, bikers, Native Americans, ranchers and other outdoor enthusiasts testified on the economic and personal benefits of Missoula County’s open space. They noted that the 2006 open space bond was passed by 75 percent of the voters, and most of those funds have been spent on protecting critical wildlife habitat and agricultural lands.
In particular, Amber Sherrill, executive director of the Five Valleys Land Trust, said the $10 million bond was leveraged at a 4-to-1 ratio, which created 43 new projects that protected 15,000 acres of wildlife habitat, 9,000 acres of agricultural land, 40 miles of waterways and 19 new trails.
“We live in an area that is growing quickly and making many of the best places to live lists,” Sherrill said. “It’s particularly important right now that we plan for the future, to protect and maintain this place for our community.”
Lee Tangedahl of Clinton was one of only three people who spoke against putting the question to voters. His property taxes went up by 18 percent recently, and he said that for the 2014 Missoula County Parks and Trails Bond, voters outside the Missoula city limits opposed it but were “out-voted” by city residents. He urged that commissioners create a special taxing district for the city of Missoula and use that to pay for open space.
“Rural areas didn’t want that (parks and trail) bond and didn’t get anything from it except the bill,” Tangedahl said. “It’s up to you, the county commissioners, to represent the whole county. You say let’s just put it on the ballot, but we’ve seen that if you do we will be at the mercy of the Missoula urban area that seems to have an insatiable appetite for spending money.”
Another key question on commissioners’ minds is whether the increase in taxes and the purchase of open space will further exacerbate Missoula’s affordable housing crisis. Susan Kohler, the chief executive officer of Missoula Aging Services, didn’t address the pros and cons of the bond, but warned of the impact to people on limited or fixed incomes.
Kohler noted that a recent University of Montana survey showed that affordable housing was the number one concern of area residents, followed by rising taxes.
“We need to join with county and city officials across the state to find ways to generate additional revenue instead of property taxes,” Kohler said. “I have seen first-hand the struggle of older adults trying to stay in their home with property taxes rising.”
Commissioner Cola Rowley noted that in Lolo, where she lives, they haven’t been able to pass school bonds, and wondered about pushing forward with the open space proposal. Commissioner Dave Strohmaier added that while there clearly are systemic social justice issues related to creating equity in the county, he believes the issue should go before voters.
“I know there’s a fear of urban areas rolling over rural if there’s concerted blocks of voting, but everyone here is a Missoulia County resident, whether they live in the city or the county,” Strohmaier said. “This question needs to be put before the voters, and I don’t want to second guess them.”