Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Looking to make subtle tweaks to the city's sidewalk subsidy program, Public Works on Wednesday unveiled recommendations that would reduce a property owner's cost of replacing a sidewalk while expanding the program to a wider number of property types.

The Missoula City Council in April directed Public Works to explore changes to the program after several council members sought to pass the program's entire cost on to all taxpayers to relieve an individual property owner's expense.

But hoping to avoid a sharp tax increase to pay for such a program, Public Works is now recommending other ways to continue the subsidy program while also reducing the cost to properties that need the work.

“These recommendations don't eliminate the assessment program, but they allow all or a portion of the assessment to be deferred until the sale of the home, and they allow new construction and smaller infill projects to participate in our subsidy programs,” said Jeremy Keene, director of Public Works.

Among other things, Keene said the recommendations would increase the threshold for payment deferrals on income-qualified properties from 80% to 120% of the area median income. They would also lower the threshold for high-assessment deferrals from $6,000 to $3,500.

The changes would also allow the subsidies to apply to single-family dwellings, duplexes and accessory dwelling units that have postponed their right-of-way improvements. As recommended, the program would cost $60,000, Keene said.

“It does a lot to eliminate some of the concerns we've heard, particularly around the higher assessment properties,” Keene said. “Right now the cap is $9,000. This allows anyone who gets that $9,000 assessment to defer all the portion of that between $3,500 and $9,000.”

The city's sidewalk program has undergone a number of changes over the last decade. Roughly 10 years ago, the property owner was responsible for 100% of the cost of a sidewalk abutting their property.

But when some property owners were left with bills as high as $34,000, the city created a new subsidy program. It capped a property owner's cost at $9,000 and provided them several payment options including eight- 12- or 20-year increments. It also offered a complete payment deferral that's repaid when the property sells or changes ownership.

“I think this addresses most of the concerns we hear when we do sidewalk projects,” said Keene. “We're recommending fairly minor tweaks to our sidewalk program. If the council wants go a different direction and fund the entire program and not use assessments, that's different than our recommendations.”

On a 10-1 vote in April, City Council directed staff to to explore a policy that considered the impacts of fully funding all sidewalk replacements, or other funding options that addressed the high cost of current assessments.

While the recommendations haven't been adopted by City Council, members expressed some support for the proposed changes.

“I think what we're seeing from the sidewalk program is staff's recommendation on how we continue to move forward with our sidewalk program without compromising the number of miles we do of sidewalks,” said council member Mirtha Becerra. “It sticks with the program we have so we can continue to have sidewalks in our community and not have to increase property taxes significantly. If we want to deviate from that, we'll need to work on a different path.”