Twelve candidates are vying for the six open seats on the Missoula City Council in November's municipal election. In Ward 5, John Contos and Alex Fregerio are competing for the seat, and they answered the following questions from the Missoulian. Ward 5 includes the southwest section of the Southgate Triangle, South 39th Street, Miller Creek and Moose Can Gully neighborhoods. Incumbent Julie Armstrong is not seeking re-election.
1. What do you see as the best strategy for helping Missoulians who feel overburdened by property taxes, and how specifically would you work to carry that out?
John Contos: High taxes are the number one issue I hear from voters. In the 25 years I’ve lived here, the property tax base has grown exponentially due to new construction, tax hikes, and valuation increases. The City of Missoula has more than enough revenue to provide all of the essential services we need. Unfortunately those services aren’t being served properly, and taxes continue to rise. This is solely due to the inefficient and unnecessary spending. In my small business, I have to do my jobs quickly, efficiently and the best job possible. We need to focus on doing the core functions of government in the most efficient way by refocusing on them and not everything else we have gotten involved in.
Alex Fregerio: Although the city budget is an easy target as the cause of inflated property taxes, eliminating critical Missoula services is not a sustainable solution to alleviating these burdens, particularly when it will only result in minor tax bill reductions for Missoulians. In order to achieve meaningful property tax relief, we need to examine our state tax structure and modernize it to better reflect the Montana economy of today. While Missoula City Council members cannot revise the state tax codes independently, electing representatives that will strive to find new revenue sources is the only way Missoulians will ever see real change in our taxes. A local option tourist tax may be one of these creative revenue sources.
2. As the City of Missoula has committed to mitigate the effects of climate change wherever it can, what specific actions would you advocate the city take?
Contos: China puts out 30% of the world’s greenhouse gases. The U.S puts out 15%. It makes me wonder what Missoula puts out. There are far greater issues that I am concerned about, like the homeless and the drug issues. I do believe we need to change our thinking about pollution for future generations. I do recycle and our kids are learning from that. I consider myself a conservationist, and I am committed to preserving the beauty we have here in Missoula. Quite frankly, giving infinite money to a city government that can’t even balance a budget is the issue at hand, not solving one of the most complex issues ever facing humanity.
Fregerio: I am an enthusiastic supporter of the city’s ZERO by FIFTY waste management plan as well as the goal to be carbon neutral by 2025 and will be a strong advocate of this program on the Missoula City Council. I admire and endorse the city’s implementation of the ZERO by FIFTY initiative into strategic planning of buildings, fleet, and employee education. I believe the TIF program initiative to reuse materials from building deconstruction is critical in keeping our landfill available for decades to come and one I would continue to advocate for. This is just one example of how the TIF program benefits Missoula, and I believe public infrastructure projects will be the main focus moving into the future.
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3. What is the Missoula City Council’s role in addressing the high cost of housing and child care?
Contos: By the time developers finish a unit, they have already spent an exorbitant amount of money in fees, permits, and regulatory requirements. I know the city is looking for ways to raise tax revenue, but it’s a vicious circle. Higher fees equal higher home prices. Let’s make it a little easier for developers to develop, and that will help with the high cost of housing. My wife and I raised three children here in Missoula. We paid for child care, and we know it’s hard. It was our choice to adopt three children. It’s not the city’s responsibility because the city can’t do anything about this issue without raising taxes, further putting a strain on families struggling to live in Missoula.
Fregerio: City Council should fully embrace the new Housing Plan and craft future policy, amend past policies as appropriate, and use the information and data available to implement the plan into our community. We must develop creative solutions to increase and modify our housing stock to bring the cost of housing back to an affordable level. As one of only six states in the U.S. without public preschool, Montana’s children and families are at a significant disadvantage, and I believe this is something that needs to be addressed in our state legislature. Missoula needs City Council members that acknowledge these issues and have the resolve, knowledge, and ideas to improve the lives of their constituents, not simply identify problems.
4. How do you view the council’s role in formulating city policy and how it intersects with the mayor’s role?
Contos: I believe that the City Council needs to listen to each other and work together. There’s no room for an individual to stand on one’s own ideologies. Formulating city policy involves patience and time. We all need to work together and we can no longer continue to have 11-1 votes. The role of the council is to serve in a check-and-balance role. We need to have rigorous discussion and debate around the proposals brought forward and not just say yes to everything.
Fregerio: To quote the Missoula City Charter, “City Council shall be the policy-making body of the City … The mayor shall execute all ordinances and resolutions passed by the City Council.” To be succinct, City Council members act as representatives of the citizens who elected them. It is the duty and responsibility of each councilor to be available for input from their constituents and to leverage the collective wisdom, information, and experience of city employees to make informed and educated policy decisions to best represent their ward and the city as a whole. Subsequently, it is necessary to collaborate with the mayor and our city departments to navigate the best course to implement these ordinances and resolutions.