Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Frustrations over the slow increase in costs and the taxes that pay for them made their way to Missoula County on Thursday as commissioners opened their budget hearing, starting with fees paid into the county's special districts.

The county maintains 35 street lighting districts, four water and sewer districts, six park districts and 11 debt service districts to pay off past infrastructure work.

Assessments paid by residents within the various districts cover various costs of services, from street lighting to park maintenance. Most of the districts won't see an increase in assessments, through three will, and one of them didn't sit well with several residents.

Andrew Czorny, the county's chief financial officer, said assessments will increase slightly in the El Mar Park District, the 29th and North Avenue West paving district, and the Canyon View Park District.

The latter includes 93 parcels that would see an increase of around $10.75, depending on a property's taxable value. Czorny said the increase is needed to keep the district's fund balanced and to cover the increasing cost of services.

“Right now there's a negative $136 balance,” he said. “I see that expanding in the next few years.”

While proposed assessment is small, even the slightest increase has several residents upset. They contend the county hasn't been maintaining the park as promised, and that assessments shouldn't increase because of it.

Taxes, one said, were becoming untenable.

“We have not been getting our bang for the buck for the amount of taxes we've paid. We can't hardly get anything done any more,” said a man who identified himself as Bob. “You're asking for more money to do less. The county better make due with what it's got and start living within its budget instead of tax, tax, tax.”

The issue with the park amplifies the challenge facing local governments across the state as the cost of services, materials and labor increase. The revenue needed to fund them rests squarely on the shoulder's of property owners.

Both city and county officials over the past two years have been clear in their frustrations with the state and its antiquated tax system, which gives cities and counties few tools to generate additional revenue without raising taxes and assessments on property owners.

“We've had several discussions related to the park. Unfortunately, the costs for maintenance has increased,” said Amanda Henthorne, a budget analyst for the county. “The last time the rates increased for this district was in 2014. That was over a decade ago. Trying to keep up with the basic costs has become more and more challenging.”

Last year, Henthorne said, a tree was removed from Canyon View Park and the work cost nearly $1,100, or roughly a quarter of the district's entire annual budget. Commissioners will continue discussing the proposed assessments throughout the county's budgeting process.

Czorny said the assessment for the El Mark Park District would increase $8.48 annually, increasing the assessment per property within the district from $123.10 to $131.58 cents. All properties would equally split the increase regardless of taxable value.

Properties within the North Avenue West district, which was created in May, will be assessed $322 annually.

“The homeowners came to the commission and asked for this to be done,” Czorny said of the district's creation.

Other district assessments will be more wide spread, including the proposed assessment for the Fairgrounds District and another for the new Rocky Mountain Gardens and Exploration Center. The county will consider assessments of $844,000 and $817,000 respectively to cover the debt service for construction bonds that have or will be issued.

The county created the Fairgrounds District in 2018.

“I've been conservative with the debt service because of higher interests rate,” Czorny said. “We don't know what the future will hold.”

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