DiBari: Missoula must rethink approach to bonds

By John BiBari

The race to the front-of-the-line-environment in which bond issues – most recently the library, school, and parks and trails bonds – are put before voters is a poor approach to taxation and community-level financial planning. The approach is misguided and does not serve the community well.

DiBari
Ward 4 City Council member John DiBari

City and county government exerts Herculean efforts to plan for all kinds of things – land use, growth policy, parks and recreation, capital improvement projects, transportation, etc. All of this is done publicly. The result is that citizens have an opportunity to share their interests and priorities, as well as their thoughts regarding when things should happen.

The current approach to bonding for single-issue projects does not help voters understand the range of proposals and their cumulative fiscal impacts. Rather, a group of community members decides to propose a project, and then tries to garner public support for it. This approach is democratic in the sense it is open, but it does not allow the broader community to shape the what, how, and when of what is put on the ballot.

It also doesn’t account for the financial burden associated with projects previously approved by voters and other tax-related items. Additionally, the current approach does not allow voters the opportunity to compare projects and their relative merits because the process is piecemeal and without context. The result is an approach that does not adequately reflect or respect the ability of city and county taxpayers to choose how they spend their money, and on what and when they spend it. Most of the public has no idea which project is next up in the queue or who keeps the list, because there is no list.

This approach can also present challenges for groups interested in advancing a project. Who becomes the arbiter when multiple worthy and important projects come forward at the same time? Is it really the best approach to community planning to have those groups duke it out at the ballot box? Although the “strongest” project may survive, this discounts the money and community effort expended in advancing a project and losing the fight, or the additional money and effort that might be required to win it.

As I knocked on doors during my campaign for city council, I encountered citizens who were genuinely concerned about their ability to pay for all the projects that come before them, however worthy the projects may be. These citizens spanned the age, household type, political, and income spectrum. Some of these citizens regularly vote against their own financial self-interest as they don’t want to deny the rest of the community the opportunity to benefit from those projects. Others consistently vote against bond issues because they can’t afford them and are consistently out-voted.

People only have so much money to spend – shouldn’t we have some idea what we are going to be asked to spend it on and when we are going to be asked to spend it, at least over something like a rolling 5-year timeframe?

I believe we, as a community, owe ourselves the opportunity to know what we are going to be asked to spend our money on with enough notice to make an informed decision. This is going to take a coordinated effort among community leaders in government, the school districts, agencies, the nonprofit sector, and interest groups to share with the public plans for capital projects, and be open to a discussion regarding projects, how they get funded, and when people are asked to fund them. Someone suggested that the only reason to go through this type of process is to ensure some bond issues fail. In reality, the main reason is to ensure bond projects are well supported and scheduled so that those proposals that reflect current community values and priorities actually pass.

My efforts to engage in a dialogue about this have already begun. Recently the Mayor and I convened a meeting to introduce this issue to the Board of County Commissioners and a few community-based agencies and organizations to gauge specific and broader community interest in addressing it. My impression was that participants found the discussion informative and important. Additional work is necessary to identify and reach out to others in the community who would be interested in being part of the conversation. I agree with the Mayor that this is an opportunity to show leadership and create an environment where local government, agencies, and organizations can speak openly with each other and the public about how we move forward with meaningful financial planning for the community. Please stay tuned as this effort continues.

John DiBari is a Missoula City Council member representing Ward 4.