Missoula City Council approves 2018 park, road assessments, but wishes for options

Dedicated earlier this year, Fort Missoula Regional Park came with maintenance and equipment costs that are now borne by taxpayers, the Missoula City Council said Monday. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Missoula City Councilwoman Marilyn Marler didn’t vote for the bond issue that financed Fort Missoula Regional Park, but now that it’s built she believes it should be well maintained.

“People want to invest in Missoula. I want to invest in Missoula,” she said during Monday night’s council meeting.

But as long as the city has just one financing option – a special taxing district for parks, Marler said she’ll be frustrated by the annual taxpayer assessments.

She favors a 2 cent local option gas tax to help pay for the city’s parks and roads.

Still, Marler and her fellow council members – who expressed similar concerns – voted unanimously Monday to bill city taxpayers for their proportionate share of a $1,591,562 park district assessment for 2018 and a $2,115,064 road district assessment.

Marler said she believed the City Council would approve a local option gas tax, if asked, but the Missoula County commissioners would also have to give it their OK. And they’ve already said “no.”

Yet the cost of maintenance and equipment related to Missoula’s parks and roads continues to grow.

This year’s opening of Fort Missoula Regional Park brought about extra maintenance and equipment costs, Marler said. But it’s a facility local voters overwhelmingly approved, so must be maintained, she added.

The Missoula Police Department’s addition of two officers who will, in part, patrol parks and keep them safe also added to the parks district’s costs.

But then, too, it’s only fair that the parks district pay for some of those safety and enforcement costs, Marler said. The new officers will be called “community service specialists.”

Still, taxpayers are frustrated with continued increases in special assessments for a litany of city and county services, said Councilman Jon Wilkins. And older residents living on a fixed income are hurting.

“I remember when these assessments started, they were touted as a way to get special projects done,” Wilkins said. “Now they’re financing everyday operations and maintenance.”

But to vote no on the road and park assessments would be to defund those city departments, he said. “I feel like my hands are tied.”

Several City Council members were unsure what work was being funded by the special assessments, although they saw those plans while considering the overall city budget for fiscal year 2018.

The assessments increased, however, after the state Department of Revenue sent the new property valuations to city officials on Aug. 1.

Then the special district assessments could be calculated, said city clerk Marty Rehbein.

Each property in the city is assessed according to its valuation – and to that valuation as a percentage of the city’s overall property valuation.

It’s not a mill levy, though, council members emphasized. It’s directly tied to the property’s assessed value.

In the end, it’s a question of value for the service provided, said Councilman John DiBari.

“The broader issue is this: Are we getting reasonable value for the amount of money being levied?” he asked. “My answer is yes. Is there transparency in how the funds are being spent? My answer is yes.”

Property owners can see the breakdown of their 2018 parks and road district assessments online at this link.