They come from five diverse backgrounds and far-flung ends of the political spectrum. But at least one thing on which all the candidates for Missoula County commissioner agree is the wisdom of a local-option gasoline tax.
“When the city started talking to us about the gas tax, it wasn’t long before we heard from several of the community councils,” said Jean Curtiss, who’s running for her third term on the commission. “They all said this would be way more impactful in our communities than it would if somebody lived in town and can ride a bicycle or take the bus or something.”
The Missoula City Council is pushing a maximum 2-cent gas tax to address the city’s need for more sidewalks, a complaint councilors hear with increasing frequency. The need far outstrips available city funding for the project, and force-fed special improvements districts inevitably meet with opposition.
It’s been almost two decades since federal and state motor fuel tax rates were increased, but the cost of maintaining streets has risen steadily, city public works director Steve King argued at a committee meeting on Wednesday. By state law, the tax could be placed on gas but not diesel.
It would be up to county commissioners to place a gas tax proposal on the November ballot, and the city is trying to convince them of the wisdom of doing so.
Curtiss has yet to see the light.
“I’ve told them from the beginning that while I thought it was good they were looking for a way to get more sidewalks in town, they had to realize that this would have to be a county-wide tax,” Curtiss said. “It would affect the people who not only live in the rural areas but also (those) making their living there, whether you’re a logger or you have a dump truck or you’re a UPS driver.”
The proceeds of a gas tax would be split, although not equally, between the city and the county. Three of every five people in Missoula County live inside the Missoula city limits and many more work there. Curtiss does both, though she grew up in rural Swan Valley.
Her two Democratic opponents in the June 5 primary, Skip Claric and Lisa Triepke, live outside of town in the Orchard Homes and Big Flat areas, respectively. Both Republican candidates Mark Brady and Skip Cleek reside west of Missoula off Mullan Road.
In interviews earlier this month, all five candidates weighed in against a gas tax to pay for city sidewalks.
“I disagree with it, entirely and wholeheartedly,” Claric said. “I’m just like all the people in the outlying areas: City services are city services. I realize the city of Missoula is part of the county of Missoula, but sidewalks and street lighting are city prerogatives. I don’t see why the county should be paying for them.”
Triepke said it hadn’t been a big issue on the campaign trail.
“But I’m not a fan of adding taxes to gas,” she said. “I think people are having a hard enough time as it is.”
Both Republican candidates state no-tax arguments in strong terms.
The county needs a three-year moratorium on new taxes, according to Cleek.
“The people in this county are taxed out,” he said. “If you wanted to build sidewalks and bike paths, you shouldn’t have spent the $3 million on Osprey Stadium.”
More and better sidewalks in the city are probably a great idea, said Brady. “But we’re trying to tax our way out of a problem that a thriving business or community would not have to deal with,” he said.
“Is now the time to mandate them on people so that we have to raise the price of gas or propose any kind of tax hikes to take care of them? Is now really the time to do that? We cannot continue to tax these people and ask them to pay for stuff.”
Curtiss wondered if even most city residents are on board with gas tax-funded sidewalk construction.
“Who’s it going to benefit?” she asked. “Sure, all of us would benefit to some degree because of the trail and sidewalk connections, but if it’s really to reduce the cost to put a sidewalk in front of my house, how many people in town think that’s going to happen to them?”
A ballot initiative would answer that question, Curtiss agreed. “But I think it would be harder to sell than they think.”
Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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