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Mount Dean Stone

Runners head toward an overlook on the Barmeyer Loop Trail on Mount Dean Stone, one of the newest additions to open space trails in the Missoula valley. 

This Election Day, local voters have an opportunity to send a direct message to Missoula city and county leaders.

Missoula County voters will be asked to consider both an open space stewardship mill levy and an open space general obligation bond, while voters outside city limits will weigh only the bond issue.

The two ballot items give voters a chance to demonstrate our appreciation for public lands and our continuing commitment to caring for them in a way that reflects their incalculable value to the community. Both of these measures are financially responsible and represent smart planning. Both are worthy of approval, and the Missoulian encourages voters to mark their ballots “yes” on these proposals.

There is, however, another important message our city and county officials must hear, and unfortunately, voters have no way of sending it through this year’s ballot. It has, nevertheless, been expressed repeatedly, and with rising urgency, through public polls and in city council chambers as property taxes continue to rise and housing becomes less and less affordable for a growing number of our fellow Missoulians.

At the same time, there is an undeniable urgency when it comes to preserving our limited undeveloped land, and for making sure it is adequately maintained in the coming years. Fortunately, the two interests are not mutually exclusive. Missoula can have its unparalleled open space, river access and trails – and our affordable housing, too. While we would have rated affordable housing a higher priority at this time, there’s no denying that open space is also a priority deserving of careful planning and financial support.

The ballots that absentee voters will begin receiving in their mailboxes this week provide one important way for Missoula residents to take care of this priority, freeing us to turn our attention to other pressing issues.

On the county side, an open space general obligation bond will allow the county to conserve lands that have been identified as important to the public, for a variety of reasons, and also at risk of being lost to other, less desirable uses. The bond would provide additional public access to both land and water sources, as well as sorely overlooked agricultural lands, wildlife habitat and the public viewshed. If this bond is passed, the county will be able to issue bonds of up to $15 million over a term of 20 years, not counting interest.

If it is passed, a house valued at $300,000 in Missoula County would see a property tax increase of about $20 a year.

In addition to the county bond question, voters who own property in city limits will weigh a second open space item in the form of a stewardship mill levy, which would add $16 a year in property taxes to a home valued at $300,000. This would allow the city to levy up to 4 mills (about $500,000) a year, in perpetuity. This levy would be permanent, because the money it raises would be used to cover the costs of stewardship and conservation of city-managed open space lands.

Local voters have a history of strong support for open space measures. The first city conservation bond, for $500,000, was approved in 1980. In 1995, a $5 million open space bond received voter approval. And in 2006, city and county voters passed a $10 million open space bond, which is now nearly depleted; the city and county each have about $320,000 left.

This money can only be used to purchase new land; the costs of building trails, maintaining trailheads, providing garbage service, managing forests, preventing wildfires, restoring vegetation, fighting noxious weeds – all must be paid for out of the city and county budgets. In order to maximize each dollar to its fullest extent, the city and county have worked with partners in the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, private foundations and landowners to leverage funds and provide for a great deal of ongoing maintenance.

Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler explained to city council members recently that it would cost more than $600,000 a year to care for conservation lands according to the current city-wide conservation lands management plan. Right now, the department has a little more than $102,000 dedicated for that purpose. Even as the number of acres the city cares for has swelled from 3,500 acres to 4,200 over the past eight years, its budget has seen only a slight increase.

Instead, the city council has opted to increase the citywide park district assessment, which collected about $200,000 when it was first created in 2010. This past August, city council members approved an assessment of more than $2 million. This money is used to fund all Parks and Rec obligations, from playgrounds and urban parks to sports fields and other facilities, not just conservation lands and trails. The open space mill levy would “close the gap,” Gaukler explained, ensuring that conservation lands are sufficiently maintained regardless of whatever other pressures exist in the parks budget.

Other pressures certainly exist in taxpayers’ budgets. Less than two months ago, city residents took turns long into the night to tell the City Council about these pressures, and ask them not to raise their taxes. Council members ended up approving a budget that raises taxes by 3.85 percent.

And earlier this year, the city commissioned a survey in which the largest portion of respondents – 23.5 percent – identified housing as the most pressing issue for Missoula. The second-highest percentage (11.5 percent) felt taxes were too high.

The matter of “environment” – which includes public lands, sustainability and climate change – was well down the list, at 1.8 percent. Of course, that same survey showed that the average rating of support for a tax increase for public lands was relatively high, at 3.4 (on a scale of 1 to 5), but that’s still slightly below the level of support expressed for street repair and snow removal, fire services and housing affordability.

It’s clear that Missoulians highly value our public trails, open space and conservation lands. But we also recognize that housing costs eat up too large a proportion of too many residents’ incomes, putting our county at risk of become a recreational paradise for only those folks wealthy enough to afford to live and play here. We must do better by our low-income and fixed-income neighbors, and part of that means tackling the housing problem with a greater sense of urgency.

Missoula must get serious about finding ways to relieve the local tax burden and solve the affordable housing crisis before it gets any worse. The folks in charge are doing too little too slowly, even as we move briskly forward with proposals that promise to compound the problem, however incrementally.

The ballot box is one good way for Missoulians to send a message to local leaders, but it isn’t the only way for residents to tell local leaders how they want to see their tax dollars prioritized. 

By all means, let’s vote “yes” on the county open space bond and the city stewardship levy. And then let’s get to work immediately on addressing the pressing problem of unaffordable housing.

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