Open space stewardship levy headed for November vote

Lands on Mount Sentinel were protected by the combined efforts of past Missoula open space bonds, the University of Montana, the U.S. Forest Service and private landowners. (Five Valleys Land Trust)

Come November, Missoula voters will be asked to approve a $500,000 perpetual mill levy intended to take care of the open and accessible lands they’ve voted to purchase and protect over the past four decades.

With a 10-1 vote Monday night, City Council members placed the open space stewardship mill levy on the Nov. 6 general election ballot. Ward 4 Councilman Jesse Ramos was the lone dissenter.

Councilman John DiBari, who also represents Ward 4, made the case for placing the question before voters.

He explained: “Time and again, the citizens of Missoula have expressed, either through polling or through their voice at the ballot box, their interest in continuing to improve the community. And as a number of people have mentioned, the simple truth of the matter is, that costs money.”

Missoula has developed “an incredible open space system,” DiBari said. “The opportunity to place this levy on the ballot is an explicit ask of the people of Missoula who made the initial investment in purchasing this land to continue to steward that land in a way that benefits not just themselves, but people who come to Missoula in the future.”

And while Ramos questioned the levy’s need and its economic impact on Missoula taxpayers, DiBari said no council member is “asking anybody in this community to vote against their self interest. We totally understand.”

The levy would cost the owner of a $265,000 home roughly $14 a year.

But “in order to maintain this system of open space that that we have, it is going to cost us money,” DiBari continued. “And I think the smartest way possible to move forward is by asking the citizens of Missoula to vote and express their interest in this regard.”

The resolution approved Monday authorizes a ballot question “for the purpose of paying a portion of the costs of stewardship and conservation of open space lands that are managed as natural areas, including care and maintenance of, improvements to, and acquisition of interests in such open space lands, whether the city shall be authorized to levy permanently up to 4 mills per year, currently raising approximately $500,000 annually.”

Voters also will be asked to consider a $15 million open space bond – one intended for the purchase of conservation lands – throughout Missoula County.

That measure was approved 3-0 last week by the county commissioners, with the endorsement of City Council members (again with one vote “no,” by Ramos).

If approved the open space bond would cost the owner of a $265,000 house $18 a year.

On Monday night, Ward 6 Councilwoman Michelle Cares said she was initially hesitant to place the $15 million open space bond on the ballot.

But “I am not hesitant about placing this (stewardship) levy on the ballot,” she said. “We need to take care of what we’ve got.”

Tracy Stone-Manning, the co-chair of Missoula’s new Open Space, Rivers and Farmland Working Group, pledged that coalition’s full support for the conservation levy.

“I am so grateful to this community and so proud of this community for the care it has taken in creating an open space system that is open to all of us,” she said. “The care we take in that is one of the reasons I live here.”

The other reason, Stone-Manning said, is because of the people – and she trusts the people of Missoula to make the right decision about the care of their open lands in November.

“We have a responsibility to the future to take care of these lands that we have all collectively worked so hard to protect and keep open for all of us,” she said.

Stone-Manning reflected back on the day in 1994 when she was director of Five Valleys Land Trust and the first parcel of private land came open for sale on Mount Jumbo.

She went to her board and said this: “I think we need to start a community project to buy this mountain.”

Five Valleys had, maybe, $7,000 in the bank. But board member Arnie Bolle, the former dean of the University of Montana’s forestry school and a nationally revered conservationist and forest scientist, broke confidently through the quiet in the room.

“We have no choice,” he said.

And in 1995, Missoula voters approved the open space bond that led to the protection of Mount Jumbo as city open space.

“I feel like this question of whether we are going to take care of the lands that we have already protected for future generations now is one of those ‘we have no choice’ moments,” Stone-Manning said Monday night.

Tony Banovich, executive director of Run Wild Missoula and the Missoula Marathon race director, also lent his group’s support for placing the stewardship levy before voters.

The 1,500 Run Wild Missoula members walk, run, hike and bike “on an almost 24/7 basis” on the Milwaukee Trail, Bitterroot Trail, Kim Williams Natural Area, North Hills, Mount Jumbo, Mount Sentinel, the lower Rattlesnake – all of Missoula’s open space lands, he told council members.

“We know there are a lot of community needs,” Banovich said, listing affordable housing, public safety, infrastructure and education.

“But we also understand that there is a need to provide stewardship for our existing improvements and our existing infrastructure,” Banovich said. “Because of that, we support the placement of this item before the voters of the city of Missoula and have them answer the question of whether we should have a perpetual sterwardship mill levy.”

No member of the public spoke against placing the stewardship levy on the ballot, and Ramos was the only naysayer on the council. He was dogged in his representation of that perspective.

As he did during a committee meeting last week, Ramos called attention to a parks special assessment already levied by the city and which collected $200,000 in 2010 and increased to $1.6 million in 2017.

“It’s up to us as the stewards of the taxpayer dollars to say, okay when is enough enough?” Ramos said. “Where is the $1.5 million being spent?”

An increase from “$200,000 to $1.5 million is egregious,” he added. “I don’t know anyone here whose salary has increased from $200,000 to $1.5 million over the course of eight years, that’s multiplied by nearly eight times. Nobody’s wages are raising like that, I don’t think we have eight times as many parks as we did in 2010.”

Ramos’ suggestion: Council members should commit to reducing the parks special assessment by $500,000 if the stewardship levy gains the voters’ approval.

Elderly citizens are “getting taxed out of their homes,” he said. “If their property taxes go up by $100, $200 a year, they can’t pay their rent to the government to live in the city. It is troubling to me.”

DiBari, again, provided the response: “If the implication is that we have been taking people’s money and flushing it down the toilet, then that is an incredibly irresponsible implication.”

The council could, if it wanted, ask city Parks and Recreation director Donna Gaukler to attend a committee meeting and recite everything the parks special assessment financed, year to year.

Gaukler has, in fact, provided council members with statistics on the city’s growing maintenance backlog in its developed parks and undeveloped open space lands.

The parks special district collects money to tend the city’s developed parks, DiBari said.

“I’m sure it includes gasoline for lawn mowers, it includes lawn mowers, it includes swing sets, it includes all the things that are assets in our city parks,” he said. “It includes all of the maintenance of the land, it includes salaries. The money that we collect though the parks special district goes to running, operating our park system. I don’t understand the point that Mr. Ramos is trying to make with regard to this park special district.

“It is money necessary to operate the system of parks that we have. We are operating in a climate in which we have to be thoughtful in how we responsibly take care of the assets that we have.”

The Montana Legislature has prevented cities from raising additional property taxes, so the general fund is always short of dollars needed to provide essential services.

The parks special assessment is one option available to the city for operating its parks.

But DiBari emphasized that “everything is done transparently, before the public. We use that money to operate our city’s park system.”