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Both sides again rolled out the heavy verbal artillery Wednesday, but the Missoula County commissioners made no decision on whether to place a 2-cent-per-gallon gas tax on the November ballot.

The Missoula City Council wants them to, to help pay for new and improved sidewalks, and council members came across West Spruce Street in force to the county administration building with all the reasons why.

Council president Marilyn Marler read a resolution that made the formal request, since according to statute a local option tax must be voted on countywide.

“I want to emphasize that we’re not asking you to take any action today,” Marler told commissioners Bill Carey, Jean Curtiss and Michele Landquist. “We’re kind of doing this as a beginning of a conversation. We’re not asking you to approve any tax, we’re asking you to give people an opportunity to vote on this.”

Commissioners have expressed reservations about doing so, emphasizing the feedback they’ve heard from people outside the city. But they adopted a conciliatory tone.

They recognize the city’s ever-dwindling options to fund infrastructure work, said Curtiss, who lives in Missoula herself.

“There’s a lot to weigh and we’re not planning to give an answer today,” she said.

“I think the city has clearly identified there’s a problem here, and I want to go thank you for tackling this problem,” Landquist told Marler and the other council members present.

Others were not so forgiving.

“If the city wants to raise more money, fly right at it,” said county resident Mike Svoboda. “Just leave me out of it. It’s a matter of principle.”

Jeannette Zentgraf of Lolo, speaking for the conservative group Advocates For Our Republic, called it “unconscionable” to think about raising taxes at this time.

“If you think seriously about our economy, you can’t possibly support this,” she said.

The city’s proposal is to split with the county on a 60-40 basis the estimated $1 million a year the tax would net – roughly the ratio of city to out-of-town residents. The split is negotiable, Marler said, pointing out commissioners could use their share for any project they see fit.

The tax won’t involve diesel fuels because it can’t, according to state law.

Councilman Dick Haines said he rarely votes to raise taxes, and he’s a minority on the council as someone who doesn’t feel an urgent need to spend money on sidewalks. But that’s the way the wind is blowing, and he sees no preferable alternative than the gas tax.

“To me, the ship is sinking and we don’t have a life raft. But we do have this life vest,” he said.

Haines said the tax would be a way of getting some help from university students and tourists who “don’t really contribute much to the running of the city.”

Commissioners also heard from councilors Mike O’Herron, Alex Taft, Jason Wiener and Ed Childers. All made pitches to put the issue on the ballot.

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Bill Nooney Sr. of Hi-Noon Petroleum said all the petroleum marketers in the city will “obviously” object to the tax.

“You’re asking the farmers, the ranchers, the loggers, the guy working on the highway out there, anybody that’s doing something in the county to pay for the city sidewalks in Missoula,” he said. “It’s unfair.”

Nooney said distributors routinely ship gas outside the county.

“We pull products from the Missoula terminal and deliver it in Idaho. Who’s going to know where the heck it went? Who’s going to keep track of it? Is the city going to send an auditor over to Cenex about once a year and audit every invoice they have to see where the product ended up?” he wondered.

Wiener followed Nooney to the podium and pointed out the county treasurer would be responsible for administering the tax. Retailers would retain a percentage of the proceeds to recover administrative costs.

“I find it difficult to imagine that the folks retailing gasoline don’t know how much is leaving each pump and where that pump is located,” Wiener said. “I suppose it’s up to them whether they want to defraud the taxpayers in order to reduce their payments to the county. But I don’t expect that’s the case.”

County commissioners reiterated their position to listen and learn more about the city’s proposal. They aren’t under the gun to make a quick decision, having until late summer to put the gas tax on the ballot if they choose to do so.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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