City Council: Rattlesnake, Northside candidates differ on tax impacts in Ward 1

Jane VanFossen, left, and Jennifer Savage discuss their goals if elected to represent Ward 1 on the Missoula City Council.

Editor’s Note: The Missoula Current will follow with the candidates in wards 2 and 3 on Wednesday, and 4, 5 and 6 on Thursday.

In one of the three open seats on Missoula City Council, the two candidates vying to represent Ward 1 after November expressed differing views of the city, and their plans to address what they see as challenges.

Taxes and how they impact the diverse neighborhoods in Ward 1 got both candidates talking.

“People have the impression that if you live in the Rattlesnake, you’re wealthy,” said Rattlesnake resident and Ward 1 candidate Jane VanFossen. “Within a stone’s throw of my house are two homes that had tax sales. They’re losing their homes because they can’t pay their taxes.”

VanFossen, a Navy veteran who earned a master’s degree with a focus on financial management, told members of the Downtown Missoula Partnership on Tuesday that the city’s housing challenges aren’t an isolated problem.

Rather, it’s one that much of the country is facing, though she believes local solutions can be found. She didn’t give specifics, other than addressing taxes.

“We’re seeing a lot of nationwide problems in terms of housing affordability,” said VanFossen. “It’s not unique to Missoula, but we can address the subject – the tax burden we’re putting particularly on limited income residents, who may own quite pricey homes now that the prices have gone up.”

Jennifer Savage, who lives in the Northside neighborhood in Ward 1, said housing is one of the issues that prompted her to run for City Council. She said the economic challenges faced by most Rattlesnake residents versus those in the Northside may be two different things.

According to the Missoula Organization of Realtors, the Rattlesnake topped the price list for home values in 2021 with a median sales price of nearly $700,000. In contrast, the Northside ranked at the bottom with a median sales price of under $300,000.

“I’m having very different conversations in the Rattlesnake than I am on the Northside,” said Savage. “If none of you have ever walked Palmer, Turner or Charlo streets on the Northside, I recommend you do it. Because when we’re talking about a housing crunch and the people it’s truly affecting, those are the people we’re talking about. I hear a lot about taxes in both those neighborhoods, but the way it affects people is completely different.”

Savage arrived in Missoula from the Carolinas in 1986 and described herself as descending from “a long line of strong women.” When she came to Missoula, downtown was “original, eclectic and authentic.”

She wants to keep it that way.

“When I think about what downtown means for our community, it’s a place that’s accessible for everyone,” she said. “It’s the cultural core of Missoula, the lifeblood of our town. I want to keep it that way while keeping it bike and pedestrian friendly and accessible to anyone who wants to visit.”

VanFossen also expressed her fondness for Missoula. But the Anaconda native took issue with what she described as a lack of fiscal transparency in the city.

“In 2017, I received papers that looked like this,” she said, waving her taxes. “I deconstructed my tax bill and tracked every one of these line items back to the school budget, the county budget and city budget. I began to understand what was happening.”

VanFossen suggested there were “material omissions” in the city’s FY22 budget. She would address those if elected to office, she said. She would also promote the city’s successes and fix its challenges.

She wasn’t clear on her position on tax increment financing, though she suggested there could be “financial flare ups” in some areas. However, she praised the Downtown Master Plan and said she’d work to see it implemented, mostly.

“I will be an advocate for the things that can be afforded,” she said, though she didn’t define what that meant. “I think I know where the things that are working extremely well are, and where some problem areas are. I want to be part of solving.”