City Council approves conservation levy for ballot as voters also consider new open space bond

Volunteer crews pitch in during a trail building session in the South Hills last year. Voters this November will consider both a $15 million open space bond and a permanent $500,000 annual levy to maintain the city’s open space holdings. (Missoula Current file photo)

While all Missoula County votes will consider funding a new open space bond this November, city residents will be asked to consider a second question – whether to impose a perpetual mill levy on property owners to fund the conservation of the city’s natural areas.

Members of the City Council’s Committee of the Whole voted 9-1 this week to place the levy on the ballot. If passed, it would generate $500,000 annually to fund the stewardship and conservation costs associated with the city’s natural areas.

“This is the third step in the process of looking at a new open space general obligation bond, and moving forward in a fiscally sustainable and responsible way to have the dollars to maintain those properties” said Donna Gaukler, director of Parks and Recreation. “It’s also to address those properties we’ve acquired through past bonds in 1995 and 2006.”

In a budget presentation to the City Council last month, Gaukler cited a growing gap between departmental funding and the true cost of maintaining Missoula’s parks, trails and open spaces, including its waterways, grasslands and forests.

This coming fiscal year, that need will increase to $721,000, though the agency is seeking only $383,000 to cover simple costs. By fiscal year 2020, Gaukler said, maintenance needs are projected to increase to $1.28 million.

Most members of the council agreed that asking voters to consider a perpetual fee to cover maintenance and stewardship was the fiscally prudent thing to do. While the council could roll $500,000 from the General Fund into the parks department to cover the difference, a voter-approved levy emerged as a better option, according to council member John DiBari.

“After careful consideration, this seemed to be a more appropriate and responsible approach to put on the ballot – a question to ask voters if they’re willing to tax themselves to continue to maintain and steward this land we’ve acquired over the course of a decade,” said Dibari. “For decades now, we’ve been building our conservation lands system, and this is an opportunity to go out to the public and ask them explicitly if they’re willing to support stewardship of this land.”

The language of the levy goes beyond simply raising funds for stewardship. It also allows for the “acquisition of interests” in open space lands. The intention, advocates claim, would enable the city to purchase key parcels if the open space bond ran out of funding.

“What the broader language would allow us to do, if at some future date we had an opportunity to acquire a parcel and the open space funding in the general obligation bond had been depleted, we’d still have the ability to use these funds, or borrow against the mill levy to acquire interest,” Gaukler said. “As always, council will have final say in what happens each budget cycle.”

The levy would cost the owner of a $265,000 home roughly $14 a year. The bond, which Missoula County commissioners approved for the ballot this week, would cost the same owner $18 a year.

Council member Jesse Ramos, who voted against supporting the bond, also panned the mill levy. As written, he said, it creates a permanent open space bond, and it duplicates what he sees as a large increase in the parks special assessment.

“The parks special assessment has gone from $200,000 in 2010 to almost $1.6 million last year,” Ramos said. “Why has the parks special assessment grown so egregiously? And why do we still need this $500,000 (levy) when we’re pulling $1.6 million already from the taxpayer for open space and park land?”

Gaukler said the increases are tied to the growth of the city’s open space holdings, along with its trails, paths and developed parks, including Fort Missoula Regional Park.

As the system expands – something a recent community survey suggested taxpayers supported – so too grows the cost of maintenance, she said.

“The costs to maintain those parcels are an essential component of building or acquiring those parcels,” Gaukler said. “Today, what has been generally demonstrated by a majority of citizens is significant support for the topography, landscape and the outdoor lifestyle they so enjoy. What we have tried to do is steward that notion, that belief and value in an appropriate and fiscally responsible way.”

Council member Bryan von Lossberg disagreed with Ramos’ take on the issue, saying a maintenance levy paired responsibly with an open space bond.

“I don’t share you’re view on the egregious growth,” von Lossberg told Ramos. “It makes me incredibly concerned that you would not have the will to fund the necessary obligations we have when we have these assets. To go forward with a question only on acquisition and not also on the topic of the stewardship levy – that would be the most concerning financial course to set out on.”

Voters will see the bond and levy questions appear on their November ballot.