Alert to Missoula property owners as to the ramifications of the city's effort to create two special districts for parks and roads:
The money raised will be used to balance the budget. No new projects or improvements will be done.
These districts can be used to tax all property owners, both currently assessed and unassessed. After today, you will have no right to protest increases or additional taxes. A majority vote of the council is enough to raise any increase desired.
These districts can be used to bond any future road and park expenses the administration wants. Future councils cannot invalidate the borrowing until such bonds are paid off.
The purpose of special districts will eventually be obvious: create a mechanism for future challenge-proof tax increases and a bonding mechanism.
The $500,000 is ballyhooed as a very small cost to the average property owner. Not much this year but next year or the year after, the decimal point could move significantly - $80 to $150 quickly becomes $800 to $1,500 - which could not be legally protested. The question is: Are these additional funds necessary? No. Other funds are available to the mayor:
• The state will provide $410,745 more to the city than anticipated. The city wants to put the $410,745 in the city's savings account.
• Change our budgeting assumptions regarding attrition. Currently the city assumes no retirements or resignations during fiscal year 2011. Assume 12 employees out of 500-plus will leave city employment; that will free up $500,000.
• The city has available $1,061,334 in unlevied tax authority from the Legislature. To assess these taxes requires a simple majority vote of council.
• The mayor indicated he may forgive $100,000 owed by Play Ball Missoula.
The city also spends:
• $425,000 in fire hydrant fees collected by the city, but no longer paid to the water company.
• $614,274 for positions that are budgeted as if they are occupied, but are not planned to be filled.
• $1,224,272 out of fund balance (the city savings account) between 2007 and 2009 (an average of $408,091 a year).
The current administration says it has already reduced the budget by $1.4 million (Missoulian, Sept. 2). Missoula has a budget of about $42 million; $500,000 represents a 1.2 percent decrease in the budget - a microscopic amount. The mayor doesn't want to cut services, but refuses to offer any alternatives or point out what services may be at risk if the budget is reduced further.
His motto seems to be, "Trust us."
"Trust us"? Remember the multimillion-dollar increase in swimming pool costs? The bond issue for the pool construction was for $8 million, but the pools cost approximately $13 million.
Trust us? Are they serious?
Increase a tax of $8 or $15 by 10 percent or 100 percent and it becomes clear that serious harm will come to many property owners and they would not be able to protest such an increase later.
Business owners, property owners, working citizens and retired citizens remind us every day of the financial hits they are experiencing and how they are tightening their belts. It's only reasonable to expect the mayor and his administration to do the same.
The administration announced it had decided not to charge unassessed properties. It says it is too difficult to determine an assessed valuation of these properties and negotiate needed contracts.
This may be a relief to unassessed properties, but people responsible for those properties should not relax - eventually the majority of City Council will want these revenues.
If $500,000 were a legitimate need, there are a number of alternatives to fund this "shortfall" without the establishment of two new taxing mechanisms. The refusal of the mayor to take advantage of other funds makes it clear the real purpose of creating these two special districts is to allow for future tax increases that cannot be challenged.
These special districts do not eliminate the city's ability to assess special improvement districts. This means you may be assessed for sidewalks in front of your home, while special district funds would pay for the street.
Every property owner, homeowner or business owner who opposes these districts must protest to the City Clerk by 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 7.
Renee Mitchell and Dick Haines represent Ward 5, and Lyn Hellegaard represents Ward 4, on the Missoula City Council.