In advance of the 2019 primary and general elections for six Missoula City Council seats, Missoula Current asked each of the 15 candidates a series of questions based on issues facing city leaders in the years ahead. Their answers are reprinted verbatim.
Julie Armstrong, the incumbent Ward 5 council member, is not running for reelection. Ward 5 includes these Missoula neighborhoods: Franklin to the Fort, Miller Creek, Moose Can Gully, South 39th, Southgate Triangle and Two Rivers.
The two Ward 5 candidates, both new to city government, are Alex Fregerio and John Contos. They will meet in November’s general election. Here are Fregerio’s answers to Missoula Current’s Q&A. Contos has not yet provided his responses to the questionnaire. They will published if he returns the form.
Alex Fregerio, Ward 5
Q: Do you support the use of tax increment financing as a tool for economic development, job growth and expanding the city’s tax base?
A: Although I see some definite improvements that need to happen at the Missoula Redevelopment Agency concerning TIF use, I do fully support this important tool in growing Missoula’s economy. The current landscape of Missoula contains countless examples of TIF dollars being put to work to improve the community as a whole, such as the Sawmill District and Silver Park. If it weren’t for being designated as a blighted area and thus eligible for TIF money, that area would most likely still be the vacant site of the old mill. In addition to being now aesthetically pleasing, the Sawmill District and Silver Park are producing much needed tax revenue and a community resource that further connects our trail system. This simply would not have happened if the city did not have the opportunity to invest in itself through the use of TIF dollars. In my neighborhood, Ward 5, TIF can be seen in the development of the Cabela’s/Kohls shopping complex. What originally would have simply been a Cabela’s moving into the existing Kmart space is now a multi-building shopping area supplying not only retail space, but also food and beverage options, and a much larger contribution to our tax pool.
A critique I have regarding TIF is the communication and transparency to Missoulians about TIF dollars. The MRA website where TIF information can be found leaves much to be desired, such as a list of projects awarded TIF dollars, how the money is spent, and basic definitions and terminology of the program. As a member of City Council, one of my main priorities will be to improve access to the information about the TIF program and ensure that it is presented in a way that is easy to navigate, understand, and share feedback on.
Q: Do you support the city’s new housing policy, and what would you do to implement the recommendations?
A: Yes, I do support the new housing policy and see it as a good launch pad for Missoula as we move forward and begin to address our community’s housing issues. At this time the policy is an outline of proposed strategies to address affordable housing and development, but the real challenge is implementing these ideas. It is clear that Missoula is growing at a rate that is outpacing the construction of new homes and the housing policy attempts to ameliorate this dilemma. As a member of City Council, I am in favor of exploring ways to decrease fees and obstacles in the way of building new housing, as well as creative solutions to incentivize the construction of new affordable housing. Like many smaller cities across the West, Missoula is facing an influx of new residents which has in turn impacted home prices, unfortunately forcing some lifelong residents out of Missoula due to affordability challenges. We must balance welcoming our new neighbors with developing policies to help those that have been here all along and can no longer sustain the skyrocketing price of housing.
Q: What would you do to expand the city’s tax base to pay for essential services and the increasing cost of providing those services?
A: At this time, Missoula is severely limited in its sources of revenue, as are almost all cities in Montana. The city can only gain revenue through fees and property taxes, and with more and more State funding cuts, cities are forced to increasingly tax property owners as the cost of services grow each year. The decline in city revenue is exactly why the city has taken an aggressive approach to TIF funds to invest in the future property tax base of Missoula. We are one of only 5 states that does not have a sales tax, which in turn means we have high income and property taxes. In addition, with the reduction in business taxes and commercial property taxes that went along with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, even more of the burden has been shifted to residential property taxes. Furthermore, we are no longer a natural resources state, which once supplied a large portion of the tax base, all of which amounts to the revenue constraints property tax payers feel today.
Our great state had 12 million tourists visit last year and those that visited Missoula used our streets, parks, and other pubic infrastructure, all without ever contributing a cent. This is the revenue stream that we as a city so desperately need to tap into. As a member of City Council I will be in full support of work to advocate and appeal to state legislators across Montana to allow cities to add a local option sales tax, with a mandated fixed percentage of revenue dedicated to local property tax relief, to the ballot.
Q: Do you believe a series of tweets sent out by President Donald Trump targeting four minority members of Congress this month were racist? Why or why not?
A: I do believe these comments to be of a racist nature and an embarrassment to our country in general. With the exception of Congresswoman Omar, the women that were the subject of Trump’s tweet were all born in the United States and come from Cincinnati, New York City, and Detroit. Congresswoman Omar fled war-torn Somalia as a child with her widower father, and arrived in America at the age of 10. These women and their stories are as iconically American as anyone else’s and probably more so than most. The fact that our President used Twitter to call out American members of congress that were justly elected by their constituents and tell them “…Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came” is a black eye for all of us and a commentary on the divisive nature of his presidency. As a Missoula City Council candidate, I fail to see exactly what this question has to do with Missoula and our city politics, but Trump’s comments were petty, ugly, and racist and not at all what we should expect from our POTUS.
Q: What would you do to ensure the city continues to meet the wide range of citizen demands while keeping an eye on taxes?
A: Cities in Montana are currently faced with a tax revenue dilemma. Some candidates say that they will cut spending in order to alleviate the tax burden. I am in favor of cutting any extraneous spending from the city budget, but after being a part of the City Government academy this winter and learning about each department’s budget and the necessary budgetary requests for the upcoming year, there simply isn’t a lot to cut. The city’s taxes are roughly 30% of a Missoulian’s overall tax bill, and of that Fire, Police and Public works, services that I think we can all agree are underfunded and not amenable to substantial budget cuts, account for 62% of the city budget. Given these constraints, if the city were to cut all spending beyond Fire, Policy, and Public Works, our overall tax bill would only be reduced by 10% at best. While a 10% reduction in taxes may be substantial for some households, it would come at the expense of the courts, development services, Parks and Recreation, housing and development, and all the city staff that sees to it that these things operate as they should. Needless to say, Fire, Police, and Public Works would also come to a grinding halt without these critical staffs and departments. The complexity of balancing revenue and taxation requires City Council members with a willingness to think outside the box and find real solutions to help see Missoula through the next decade and beyond.
Q: What more can the city do to accommodate non-motorized transportation to achieve the goals in the Long Range Transportation Plan?
A: The new housing policy encourages future growth of affordable housing in the center of Missoula and areas with easy access to the trail system and public transportation. This concept of growing Missoula from within will facilitate and encourage Missoulians to walk and bike around town. In recent years our trail system has seen many previously unconnected sections come together and we now have the ability to walk or bike from the south end of town to the downtown area while minimizing the need to cross a major artery of traffic. Our city’s prioritization of creating and maintaining trails and non-motorized methods of transportation is something I want to see continue into the future both from an environmental and quality of life perspective.
Q: What would be your primary goal as a member of the City Council? How would you fund it?
A: My first initial goal as a member of City Council will be to improve communication between the city and its residents. As an example, if the average Missoulian wished to learn more about TIF, where and why it is used, and what Missoula projects have included TIF funding, there is almost no information easily available on the MRA website. For an issue as complicated and controversial as TIF funding currently is, these should be questions that are easy to answer for the average citizen searching online. It would also benefit the city to make it easily accessible for people to see where TIF dollars are spent and the forecasted property tax revenue that will be produced from the project. From taxes to housing there are many Missoula issues that our citizens want to know more about and have a larger say in. I want to improve communication from the city in a budget neutral way through the use of social media and a revision of the city website in a way that will make more information easily accessible, easy to understand, and offer more opportunities for feedback from the residents of Missoula.