Wards 3, 4: City Council candidates disagree on climate, taxes, housing in public forum

From left to right, Ward 3 candidates Drew Iverson and Gwen Jones, and Ward 4 candidates Alan Ault and Amber Sherrill, squared off Tuesday night at a public forum hosted by the League of Women Voters.

The candidates running to represent Wards 3 and 4 on the Missoula City Council were sharply divided on a range of issues Tuesday night, from their belief in climate change to their views on tax reform at the state level.

They also stood divided in their support for mandatory background checks on gun sales and transfers, and whether the city should pare back its healthcare package for municipal employees as a tool to cut spending.

“When you’re paying out over $700,000 a year for city workers’ healthcare premiums, that’s one area we can look to cut,” said Ward 4 candidate Alan Ault. “The insurance plan for these people is better than what most people in this room have. We need to start tightening the belt.”

Fellow Ward 4 candidate Amber Sherrill disagreed.

“I just want to be clear, I would never cut municipal employees’ health care,” she said. “We’re very different candidates for that reason.”

Sherrill has emerged as the front-runner in the Ward 4 race, garnering 1,607 votes to the 875 votes secured by Ault in the September primary. The two candidates didn’t agree on much, and neither did the two candidates running in Ward 3: incumbent Gwen Jones and challenger Drew Iverson.

Jones easily won the primary with 1,234 votes to the 281 votes taken by Iverson.

On the issue of climate change, Jones expressed strong support for the city’s efforts to address waste at the local level. In contrast, Iverson denied that human activity is a driving force in the world’s changing climate.

“The more research I go into on this subject the more it shows that human beings are not responsible when it comes to the use of fossil fuels that affect the weather,” Iverson said. “It comes from the effects of solar rays from the sun.”

Jones argued otherwise, saying the city has a responsibility to play its part in global efforts to curb greenhouse gasses.

“We have a great Zero by 50 policy we’re going forward with, and a 100 percent clean electricity resolution,” said Jones. “Our next big step – I’d like to see implementation of that, combining with some partners, both private and public, to get Missoula to 100 percent clean electricity.”

Ault admitted “there is something going on out there,” and said the city should look deeper at recycling. He didn’t mention the city’s new policies on the issue, though Sherrill offered her full support for Missoula’s climate initiatives.

The candidates were also divided in their views on tax increment financing and the role it has played in bringing jobs and investment to Missoula. While all four candidates agreed that the program has netted some positive outcomes, not all supported the program.

Iverson struggled with his answer, saying TIF funding should be directed to hospitals and schools and the University District, which doesn’t sit in an Urban Renewal District. Ault dismissed the tool in its entirety, saying he’d push to end it completely.

“It’s a burden on the taxpayers,” he said. “California instituted the TIF program in the 1950s. It took them 50 years to wise up to what it was doing to the taxpayers, and in 2011 they shut it down. I’m starting to see the same trends across the nation.”

But Jones and Sherrill supported the program, saying it has helped fund projects that stand beyond the reach of the municipal budget. From parks to public infrastructure, the program remains valuable, and both agreed it could be revamped to better meet today’s challenges.

“It’s a crucial component in affordable housing,” said Jones. “But I think, because our economy and community isn’t static, neither should MRA in how it uses its formula to analyze TIF. We probably need to refocus it at this point.”

Sherrill noted the program’s success in the downtown district, where $20 million in public investment generated $200 million in private return. That, she said, has positive impacts on the city.

“It’s an investment in our future,” said Sherrill. “We’re at a time that we have invested a lot in some of these districts, and it’s time for us to take a look at how we use that to be more strategic, because times have changed.”

The candidates also disagreed on calls for tax reform. Jones and Sherrill said the current tax system is broken and relies too heavily on property taxes. Other sources of revenue are needed, and both expressed support for a tax on tourism.

“We have $307 million in tourist spending in five months, and we have 3 million visitors a year,” said Sherrill. “They drive on our roads, ride on our trails and use our emergency services. That’s great, but we’re paying for that.”

Jones agreed.

“We need tax reform, because we need to diversify our tax base,” she said. “We’re pulling from the property tax bucket way too much. If you want to keep taxes from going up at the same trajectory or even lower them, you need to pull from other sources, and that’s what a tourist tax would do.”

While Iverson argued for lower taxes and more services, he didn’t say how he’d pay for them, and he dismissed the idea of a local option sales tax.

Ault also opposed a tourist tax, saying he would cut healthcare costs at the city level and snip what he sees as frivolous spending.

“That’s where it’d start,” he said. “We don’t need overseas trips for city council and members of the art community. You and I are paying for that out of our taxes.”

Ault and Iverson also opposed the city’s ordinance requiring background checks on gun sales and transfers. Iverson said it would “punish” law-abiding citizens.

But Jones and Sherrill both supported the ordinance.

“I think it’s completely reasonable to require a background check before selling a gun,” said Jones.

The forum can be viewed on Missoula Current’s Facebook page by following this link.