A small pot of money obtained during the auction of equipment at a former industrial site west of Missoula could be used to start a community decay fund, helping the City-County Health Department address complaints about the accumulation of junk on properties.
As it stands, the health department said Thursday, no such fund exists, though if leveraged with matching funds, it could go far in addressing a persistent environmental issue.
“We have a couple of situations where a little bit of money can help us leverage a big cleanup,” said Shannon Therriault, director of environment health at the City-County Health Department.
“This money would be most useful if it were only used in those cases where we did see that leveraging some money would give us a bigger bang for the buck, and that we don’t take responsibility for the cleanup of people’s property.”
Last July, Missoula County filed several civil complaints against M2Green, which at the time owned the shuttered Smurfit-Stone Container Corps. pulp and paper mill in Frenchtown. At the time, the company owned more than $1.2 million in back taxes.
As part of its suit, the county sought to intercept any proceeds M2Green stood to recover from the auction and sale of equipment and fixtures on the property. The county won and received $522,000 from an auction held in August.
Shortly after, the county also reached a settlement agreement with Wakefield Kennedy to collect more than $967,000 in delinquent taxes owed by M2Green. While Wakefield doesn’t own the property, it does serve as the lender and was looking to protect its security interests.
Anna Conley with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office said the county took the $522,000 received from the auction and applied it to the $967,000 settlement agreement reached with Wakefield. But the auction money also assumed other post-auction expenses, she added.
“We agreed to get the net auction proceeds, and we didn’t know the net amount when we settled,” Conley said. “But it turns out that we got an additional $11,904 from the auction proceeds.”
At the same time, Conley said, the board of health also filed a community decay action against the property. Initially, the county looked to apply its additional auction proceeds to address it.
But Wakefield, which doesn’t directly own the property, was unwilling to obligate itself to further expenses, Conley said. And since M2Gree isn’t likely to pay, the county moved to dismiss the community decay action.
Instead, Conley suggested applying the $11,000 check to start a community decay fund.
“I have seen that it would be very useful for the health department to have a community decay fund,” she said. “It was my intention to use these funds to address community decay at the (mill) site, but since that didn’t end up happening, it seems to be a logical use of the funds for potentially smaller issues that might arise.”
At their Thursday meeting, Missoula County commissioners considered applying to funding to pay down the back taxes still owed on the one remaining parcel that wasn’t covered in the settlement agreement with Wakefield.
But it’s like that those taxes will be paid in the near future, as the property is rumored to be close to new ownership and possible redevelopment.
“The potential new owners, fairly soon hopefully, have all kinds of incentives to clean it up,” said Commissioner Jean Curtiss. “I don’t think we have to worry about that not happening out there. A community decay fund is something for years we’ve seen as a needed thing that could help with some other big sites.”
Therriault said the tools needed to address community decay within the city and county are overdue, and the $11,000 auction check could serve as a start. Commissioners agreed and directed county staff to begin working on the process.
“Community decay comes with a lot of baggage,” said Therriault. “I lot of times it’s associated with hording and the compulsion to see value in a lot of junk. We need to do something to ensure it just doesn’t return and we’re paying someone’s garbage disposal. That can be tricky in these cases.”