Nearly every day we hear two truths about our county: property taxes in Missoula county are too high and our roads are in bad shape. We can’t disagree; the burden on residential property taxes has steadily increased over the last 30 years, as places like Smurfit Stone and the Bonner Lumber Mill have gone out of business. And the legislature hasn’t made local option sales tax available for places with more than 5,500 people. Residential property now covers about 60% of all local property tax, which is a huge shift in the last three decades. Similarly, over the past couple decades we’ve not kept up with road maintenance, and now we’re financially way behind.
As leaders in local government, our response to these needs is often, “property taxes are the only tool we have under state law.” That response just isn’t satisfying to us, or to our constituents, as there is one tool we haven’t tried yet: the 2-cent local option gas tax. The state legislature allows counties to put a 2-cent gas tax on the ballot, and then the voters decide.
Simply put, to bring our roads back into good repair our community needs resources, other than property taxes. A capped-by-law, 2-cent gas tax, where the funds are dedicated solely to road maintenance under statute, and is a great option for a number of reasons.
With a 2-cent gas tax, all drivers pay proportionately to their use. 1.5 million tourists visit Missoula County each year and use our roads, but they currently pay next to nothing toward our local road maintenance (Missoula County receives 2% of the state’s gas tax collected here). Two cents on the gallon will have our visitors contributing $400,000 toward the $1.1 million that this will generate each year for roads in our county. Currently, tourists have no real opportunity to cover the costs of their impact on our roads. We pay most all the road costs for our 1.5 million guests.
A 2-cent gas tax distributes the burden of maintaining our roads more fairly, and demands personal responsibility — everyone who uses the roads helps pay for them. In the midst of the COVID crisis, no one is travelling. Demand for gas has plummeted; consequently, the price of gas has also dramatically dropped. We’re paying less for gas now than we have at any time in in this century. An additional 2 cents and our gas prices are still spectacularly low, and when tourists come back, they can begin contributing to the care of the roads they use.
Our gas tax will raise 1.1 million, but that money grows considerably when we use it to leverage federal dollars. Most federal grants require matching local funds. For every local dollar, we could see $7 of federal money to fix our roads. When $700,000 of gas tax money from residents is coupled with the $400,000 from visitors and then applied to projects eligible for federal funding, our local investment of $700,000 yields up to $8.8 million of road projects. That is the equivalent of $137 a year in property taxes on a $300,000 home.
The average driver in Missoula County will end up paying less than $1 per month, or around $10-$11 per year. In return we get better roads, fewer potholes, dust abatement in the county and pavement preservation, and all that means less wear and tear on our vehicles. What’s more, diesel fuel and fuel for off-road work and recreation are exempt.
We’ve heard that Missoula County doesn’t have a plan for the administration of this program, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. First and foremost, gas stations receive compensation under state law for their administrative costs. And we’re willing to go further to not unduly burden gas station owners. As for the county’s administration, we have existing software that we can utilize free of charge, we’re ready to implement this program on Day One. We also offered to work with the petroleum industry to tailor the administration of this program to their needs.
We urge you to vote to relieve our property tax burden. Vote for fairness and responsibility (if you use the roads, you should help pay for them!), vote to improve our pavement and gravel, and support the local construction jobs necessary for road maintenance. Vote for the 2-cent gas tax.
Josh Slotnick is a Missoula County commissioner and Tyler Gernant is Missoula County's clerk and treasurer.
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