The Missoula County Commission decided Thursday to move forward with creating a special district for the Missoula County Fairgrounds, despite some accusations of “insulting” the intent of the law.
The proposed special district will encompass the fairgrounds land only, and will allow the county to leverage four mills assigned for improvements to take out one or more long-term loans to build “as much as possible, as quickly as possible,” according to fairgrounds director Emily Bentley.
Phase I of fairgrounds improvements is estimated to cost nearly $19.5 million, Bentley said. She expected to take out some $20 million in loans.
The first phase covers renovation of five historic buildings: the commercial, culinary, floriculture, home arts and fair offices, as well as funding construction of a learning center, which will headquarter Weed Extension and 4-H.
The loans also will cover sitework and utilities for the to-be-built ice rink, rodeo arena and livestock center, as well as building out new concessions facilities.
Jackson Construction has been picked as the general contractor. It also will have a hand in design and consultation, according to Bentley.
Bentley said the special district is needed because its yearly four-mill allocation isn’t enough to get some larger projects done, and would delay improvements as the county receives tax money.
This way, county residents' taxes stay the same (at least in terms of the fairgrounds’ allocation) and the fairgrounds can take out loans to build more, sooner, according to Courtney Ellis, the county’s bond counsel with Dorsey & Whitney.
“This is just a means for the county to obtain one or more loans and then pay back the loan or loans using the (four) mills,” Ellis said.
Special districts are allowed by state law, but Rocky Sehnert, a Missoula County resident, thought the county was flouting the law’s intent by using its own land to create a district.
The state law outlines ways for taxpayers in a proposed district to protest, Sehnert said, but in this case there are no taxpayers to formally protest.
“This is a really unique proposal,” Sehnert said. “There is no private property in the district, yet every piece of property in the county will be taxed — and is already being taxed — for the district.”
The commission disagreed with Sehnert’s assertion they were insulting the intent of the law, instead viewing it as the ideal solution to an issue that’s long hounded the county — how to finance the millions of dollars of needed fairgrounds improvements.
“Even in the complexity of government financing, when you look at this, it’s simple and elegant and creative,” Commissioner Cola Rowley said.
Commissioner Dave Strohmaier also pointed out the county could raise taxes to pay for the improvements, a process that, outside of elections, technically doesn’t have a formal citizen protest either.
The commission argued this method is actually more transparent and effective.
“The time has come to bite the bullet and move forward,” Strohmaier said.
The commission will take a final vote to create the special district on May 24. Until then, people can contact the commissioners' office at 406-258-4877 or the fairgrounds with questions or comments.