Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Over the opposition of some residents, the Missoula City Council on Monday night approved a plan to assess property owners for their cost of sidewalks and boulevards planned as part of a new greenway.

The measure, which passed on a 10-2 vote, orders right-of-way improvements for the first phase of the greenway, which will extend from Rose Park to the Riverfront neighborhood along Ivy and Franklin streets. Roughly 48 parcels line the route and 41 of them will be assessed their share of the work.

But some suggested the city has its priorities wrong and remains tone-def to the plight of homeowners, who are struggling with spiking property values and ever-increasing property taxes. This city passed an 11% tax increase last year and a 9.7% increase this year.

“Is this the crisis priority that everybody on council – incumbents, the candidates, all the mayoral candidates, our new mayor – wants?” said resident Kathleen Kimble. “Everyone has said the top priority crisis is affordable housing. Taxing people out of their homes is not a good thing to do. At this particular time, this isn't the top crisis priority.”

The cost of the sidewalks and building out the boulevard to accommodate the greenway will be assessed to property owners under the city's Special Improvement District and Road District, and their associated funding assistance programs.

According to the city, property owners will fund roughly 16% of the sidewalk and boulevard work while the remaining 84% will be paid from the city's Road District and gas taxes. Still, those opposed to the assessment said the timing wasn't right given increasing costs and economic uncertainty.

“These are people on fixed incomes. These are people who work their entire lives to live in their home and now, because the city forcibly takes their tax dollars and spends it however it wishes, they might have to sell their home,” said council member Sandra Vasecka. “Sidewalks are great. But we have a housing crisis. We have a property tax crisis. This is terrible for people.”

The City Council has worked for years to improve and amend its sidewalk program. A decade ago, property owners were responsible for 100% of the cost, at least until former Mayor John Engen paused the program after property owners were confronted with bills as high as $34,000.

After several changes, the City Council adopted a subsidy program that caps a property-owner's cost at $9,000 and offers a range of ways to pay. Among them, they can pay over eight-, 12- or 20-year increments. They can also defer the entire cost until the property sells or changes ownership.

“Ten years ago, it was a very different formula that put much more onus on the homeowner. Now, we've got to the point where there's a formula that caps out,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “We do acknowledge that we have a housing crisis, but we also need the infrastructure in place, and these things aren't one or the other. We can do both at the same time.”

Council members also noted that money in certain city coffers comes from different sources, many of which have rules on how or where the revenue can be spent. In many cases, that doesn't include housing.

While the timing of the greenway and the assessments that come with it isn't ideal, some said the funding formula remains an equitable solution to build out city infrastructure. New development is required to provide sidewalks but that wasn't always the case when older neighborhoods developed.

“I agree the timing is bad. Our property tax bills are a difficult situation,” said council member Gwen Jones. “I don't see how it's going to get better in the near future or far future, unless we find a whole pot of money we can put toward sidewalks, which I don't think we'll be doing. We still want to have some level of funding formula to put more infrastructure in.”