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City Council: Ward 2 race pits tax skeptic against transportation advocate

Missoula City Council incumbent Jordan Hess, left, and challenger Rebecca Dawson discuss taxes and other issues as candidates for Ward 2.

Voters in Ward 2 will have a choice between two candidates for Missoula City Council come November, including a transportation expert and climate advocate, and a Bitterroot native and mother who believes city spending is out of control.

Jordan Hess, the transportation director at the University of Montana, is seeking his third term on council and is being challenged by political newcomer Rebecca Dawson. The two discussed their vision for downtown Missoula, taxes and bonds during a Tuesday forum hosted by the Downtown Missoula Partnership.

Dawson, who grew up in the Bitterroot, moved away and relocated to Missoula, has joined several other candidates in running on a platform of fiscal responsibility.

“Over the next couple of years, my taxes were astronomical,” Dawson said. “When we bought our (Missoula) home, we had a certain budget in mind and every year that budget had to change because of property taxes.”

It is, she said, the main reason she’s running.

“I’d like to see fiscal responsibility brought back to Missoula,” she said. “I know property taxes are only a portion of our city government. But if we can spend that money more wisely, maybe we can avoid tax increases in the future.”

Like many candidates running on a platform of fiscal responsibility in this year’s field, Dawson didn’t detail where she thought savings could be made, or what she saw as irresponsible spending.

However, she did hone in on the many general obligation bonds passed by Missoula voters in recent years. Those have included a new library, schools, open space, Mountain Line and Fort Missoula Regional Park. Added up and they easily represent more than $150 million.

“Missoula has never met a bond issue it didn’t like,” said Dawson. “I feel the Missoula City Council can do a better job educating the public on what those issues are actually going to cost them, and maybe look for alternatives.”

Hess, who holds the advantage as a popular City Council incumbent, discussed his fondness for downtown Missoula and praised the master plan that’s helped shape the downtown district over the past decade.

While Dawson said she doesn’t frequent downtown, Hess said the district’s visionary plan helped spur his interest in public service.

“The master plan was put together with the vision of hundreds of people, and I’m a strong believer that as local government, we have adopted plans and policies, and it’s our job as elected officials to steer those policies and help get those policies adopted,” he said. “I would love to see our downtown’s small businesses continue to thrive as our community changes.”

Hess also touched on taxes and his priority as a member of City Council.

“We have three emerging crisis in my mind, and those are climate, equity and housing,” he said. “Those need to be addressed at all levels of government with urgency. There’s a lot of work going on in Missoula on all three of those, and there’s a lot of good work proposed in our housing policy. I want to see those through.”

When asked specifically about the voter-approved bonds mentioned by Dawson, Hess said such bonds are a way of being accountable to voters. When spending large sums of money on community projects, such as the library and open space, asking voters is the right thing to do, he said.

“If you’re going to spend tens of millions of dollars on a cornerstone cultural center in downtown Missoula, the right thing to do is ask the voters to approve it,” he said. “Bonds are our way of seeking approval, but more broadly, our tax system in Montana is broken. We really need to diversify our revenue stream at the state level. Property taxes are a problem. It’s a problem imposed upon us at the state level.”

Dawson said she didn’t know the exact answer to the question related to bonds, but maintained her skepticism about their frequent passage.

“My notion through the years is that it’s been to ask the voters for permission to spend money,” she said. “When someone complains about their tax bills, they can say it was voted on and was a popular project.”

Dawson also questioned the city’s plans around homelessness.

“I don’t see where we’ve created any solutions. If we’re going to spend money on the homeless issue, we need spend money with results in mind,” she said.