From zoning to public health, Missoula County frustrated with Legislative agenda

One bill still alive in the Legislature could leave the county vulnerable for trying to implement zoning and subdivision regulations in the peri-urban area. (Missoula Current file photo)

Missoula County on Thursday continued to express dismay over a number of bills still alive in the Legislature, which they say would handicap their ability to address local issues, from building infrastructure to regulating growth and development.

One bill would also undermine the local health department’s ability to regulate vaping. Another would continue to shortchange payments to the county for housing a state inmate, leaving taxpayers to make up the difference.

Chris Lounsbury, the county’s CAO, said it costs the county around $120 a day to house an inmate. But the state has set a reimbursement cap of just $69. Missoula County has sued the state over the issue.

“It contravenes both the contract we have with the state of Montana and does not cover the actual cost of housing an inmate,” said Lounsbury. “It’s almost 50% the state is not picking up and those local costs get passed on to taxpayers.”

The county is also watching HB 632, which addresses funding the American Rescue Plan. The funding parameters haven’t been set, though the state is likely to distribute a portion of the funding to cover such things as infrastructure.

But the bill also includes language that would reduce funding to any city or county by 20% that has in place any Covid regulations that are tighter than the state’s own regulations.

“That’s the bill that currently says that if there are any more restrictive regulations than state health regulations – which the state doesn’t have – then there’s a 20% reduction in eligibility for funding,” Lounsbury said. “We’ll continue to send messages around that for Missoula-based projects we’d like to see. At this point, the way the bill is structured, there are no specific projects that are called out.”

Missoula County is also lobbying against SB 260, which relates to property interests and transfers. The county believes the bill, if passed, would require local governments to compensate people in the greater urban area for land-use decisions that could potentially devalue another’s property.

“It seems that if this were to pass, it would paralyze us for things on planning in general – zoning and subdivision regulations in the peri-urban area – if someone believed that such an act of planning devalued their property,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick.

The bill concerns the county given its efforts to guide growth in the Mullan area and other booming areas of the valley. That includes zoning certain areas for certain uses and carving out certain regulations.

But some could argue that such efforts devalue their property.

“We have seen this bill in and gotten information from other states,” said Lounsbury. “The equivalent bill in Oregon, in the short time it was in effect, resulted in a high number of lawsuits with an estimated value of around $20 million in damages. It was quickly repealed shortly after.”