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Get signatures if you want the gas tax on the ballot.

That was the early word Thursday – but certainly not the last word this summer – from the Board of County Commissioners to the Missoula City Council’s request that commissioners put the gas tax on the ballot. But the body didn’t make a formal decision and Commissioner Jean Curtiss said the county will hold multiple public hearings before it takes action.

On Monday, the Missoula City Council adopted a resolution asking commissioners to place a 2-cent-a-gallon gas tax on the ballot, and Thursday, three councilors presented the resolution to commissioners. Just one member of the public attended the meeting – it wasn’t a formal hearing – and Lewis Ball didn’t have kind words for ideas coming from City Hall.

“We look at the city as a bully,” said Ball, who lives outside city limits. “They’re shoving stuff down our throat, and they’re at it again.”

Councilors, though, stressed the step they were asking commissioners to take wouldn’t authorize a gas tax. Rather, it would allow all voters to decide for themselves at the ballot box.

“It’s us asking permission from our constituents,” said Councilman Jason Wiener. “They may tell us no, and I’ve been told no before.”

A culture clash between the city and rural areas in the county was apparent during the discussion. Councilors stressed that 60 percent of county voters live inside city limits – and commissioners noted they have to look out for rural residents, too.

Councilor Bob Jaffe said he didn’t understand why rural residents who hold a minority viewpoint would drive county policy – and Commissioner Jean Curtiss countered that some actions hit people in outlying areas harder. She said a county resident drives farther to get groceries and go to church, and a city resident has the option to hop on a bus or ride a bike.

Early on in the discussion, Curtiss asked a key question: “How is the council gauging public support for this?” After all, a survey of city residents in 2008 found that 57 percent opposed a gas tax for transportation.

Councilors, though, often hear requests from constituents for sidewalks, and council president Marilyn Marler said if the public understands the city’s share of dollars will be used for sidewalks, the gas tax might fly.

“If people understand it’s for a specific thing, I think there would be support,” Marler said.

As proposed, the local option gas tax would be 2 cents per gallon, the maximum state law allows; it would not be levied on diesel; and it would bring in as much as $1 million a year. The city resolution proposes the income be split with the city getting 60 percent and the county getting 40 percent.

Ball suggested flipping those amounts so the county got 60 percent, but councilors and commissioners didn’t get close to negotiating. Since they aren’t close to agreeing to move forward with putting a gas tax on the ballot, commissioners haven’t said how they might use their portion of the income.

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The idea is on the table because councilors are trying to find ways to pay for sidewalks that don’t increase property taxes. Many tourists enjoy Missoula, but they don’t contribute by paying sales tax, for instance, Marler said.

“We thought this (gas tax) was a pretty low-pain option of trying to capture some of that,” Marler said of income from visitors.

For some businesses in the county, though, it’s high pain, according to Curtiss and Commissioner Michele Landquist. One business calculated the tax would cost an additional $72 a year since it buys 300 gallons a month for pickups and other uses, according to commissioners.

“We ourselves don’t know what kind of burden it would create for the retailer,” Landquist said.

On top of a $30,000 gas bill, though, $72 is minuscule, said Councilman Jaffe. It’s just $6 a month.

Councilors have talked about ways the county could spend its portion of the income – even refunding a portion of property taxes to payers – and on Thursday they asked commissioners if the county was satisfied with the level of infrastructure it provided. Don’t its constituents want more trails?

Yes, but Curtiss said building them isn’t always practical given the landscapes. Plus, the last couple of years have been tough financially, said county chief financial officer Andrew Czorny, and the county isn’t as quick to raise taxes as the city.

Wiener, though, said he didn’t want the county to suggest the city isn’t frugal, and he said the city levies taxes well under its cap. It needs a different source of income, and federal and state gas taxes have been stagnant for years.

“So we’re dealing with deferred maintenance in lots and lots of areas,” Wiener said.

He said the gas tax also makes sense because it’s logical – those who drive create a need for others to have a safe place to walk.

The law that authorizes the gas tax says its use is for “public streets and roads.” Curtiss wanted to be sure the use for sidewalks was legal, and Jaffe said City Attorney Jim Nugent had confirmed that was the case; the matter had been addressed other times as well.

The law also offers two ways to put a local option fuel tax in place – commissioners can put it on the ballot, or petitioners can gather signatures and get it on the ballot. Commissioner Bill Carey urged councilors to collect signatures instead of asking commissioners.

“That to me is the fairest thing to do,” Carey said.

Marler, though, said it’d be an enormous undertaking, and it defers the responsibility elected officials have to take leadership.

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Part of the discussion was about the costs and responsibilities of living in a rural area. City councilors argued people who live in rural areas and drive more may pay more in a gas tax, but that comes with their choice to live outside the urban area.

Commissioners, though, said it isn’t always a choice. Landquist said some people can’t afford a home in the city, and Curtiss said some people have to live near their families. She also said she was offended at the refrain from city councilors that living in the county was a choice.

The county has beautiful areas city residents visit, and they benefit having people living and working in those rural places, too, Curtiss said.

At a future commissioners’ meeting, Marler will formally read the resolution into the public record. Jaffe said because a gas tax will be unpopular with many people in rural areas, as the discussion continues, he’d like commissioners to consider whether the city can make any concessions to rural residents.

In the next month or so, the city and county will do a survey, and Curtiss said one question includes how much more money people are willing to pay for trails and sidewalks. She wants to hear from more people, but she wasn’t inclined to rush to put the measure on the ballot.

“I’m scared to put it on the ballot without knowing what everybody thinks,” Curtiss said.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

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