Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The Missoula City Council this week put the brakes on a proposed resolution to increase the annual registration fee on tourist homes.

But while council members voted to keep the proposal in committee for more work, they still intend to the raise the fee. How to do it and what the fee would fund hasn't been firmly established.

“I would like to hit pause on this and keep it in committee for some time, and have staff work with the committee chair,” said council president Gwen Jones. “There are a lot of issues and questions. This is a hard topic and complicated. We need to be clear with our goals and what we're trying to accomplish with this.”

The city's current fee to register a tourist home is $60 for the first year and $31 each year after for renewals. A separate fee is also tacked on for licensing and inspection.

As proposed, the $60 fee would jump to $450 a year, and it would be charged annually during renewal. City officials contend the increase is needed to properly track the number of operators and units, and to gather data on what, exactly, is being used as a tourist home.

It would also fund the ability to contact operators who are out of compliance with city ordinance. Current figures suggest that around 541 tourist homes are operating within the city, but only 112 are current registered.

Expanding the program will cost money, city staff said.

“These activities at the current fee level are being subsidized by the general fund rather than being covered by a fee-for-service,” said Montana James, deputy director of Community Development.

City officials and council members want to transform the program so it becomes self-sustaining and no longer relies on general fund dollars.

But the $450 fee doesn't have wide support among most council members, and the programs the fee would fund remain half-baked. Keeping the proposal in committee for additional refinement won majority support from council members this week.

“If we were to vote on it right now, I don't think it would pass as is,” said council member Heidi West. “I think raising the fee is appropriate, we just haven't quite figured it out. I feel uncomfortable voting on this right now, especially if we're potentially changing our interpretation of the ordinance that established this.”

The measure is expected to resurface in the months ahead. As it stands, most agree the program isn't working as intended. The tourist home industry remains relatively young, and those who have spoken with council said they rely upon the revenue they earn to make ends meet.

“It sounds like things are simply stuck and not moving forward at all,” Jones said of the current program. “The people who are being good and registering and playing by the rules are paying for everyone. It sounds like we need to do all or nothing.”