How Should Missoula Pay for Public Safety Improvements: Districts or Levies?
Tonight, March 24, the Missoula City Council will vote on whether or not it should go ahead with a $7.9 million public safety financing district to help fund, in part, improvements at the Missoula Police Department. There are few voices saying the improvements aren't needed, however, there is significant controversy over how to get the money.
"I plan to vote against the new district," said Missoula City Council Member Adam Hertz. "I think the city has passed a lot of inefficiencies in the budget. There's no doubt that the police facility enhancements are necessary, but, in the past we would have gone to the public and asked them to approve a bond. Apparently democracy is just too inconvenient for the mayor and city council these days."
Hertz argues that not only is a bond more democratic, it forces the city to be more fiscally responsible. Right now, the projected cost of the district is $11 for a $250,000 property in 2015. That price is expected to jump up to $24 in 2016. But Hertz says it won't stop there, and points to two current tax districts as evidence that Missoulians can expect to see a tax spike in the future if the district goes through.
"Districts don't have any caps set on them by the Montana legislature, so they can go up infinitely if the city council and mayor vote to raise them. Last year, the road district nearly doubled and the park district went up by 25 percent. These are significant new district fees that will be on our property tax bills moving forward."
The other option to pay for the improvements is for city to go the more traditional levy/bond route, which would have to be voted on by the general public in the November elections. Bonds and levies have certain restrictions that prevent sharp tax increases in the future.
"Currently, the general levy... the tax bill that you see on your property tax form... that's capped by the State of Montana," Hertz said. "The city can only increase taxes on the general levy by half of the rate of inflation. That's meant to make cities live with a little more financial responsibility. The city-wide special tax districts are a way to get around that levy cap."
The city council is likely to approve the district, but even if it does, there is a way that Missoulians can vote on which of the two payment routes the city should take. After approval by the mayor and city council, the city is required by law to send out letters notifying the public about the move, a process that will cost $20,000 itself.
A public protest period is also required, it will run between April 22 and June 20. During this time, if 10 percent of property owners contest the district, it will go back to the city council and require a referendum. If more than 50 percent of property owners protest, district proceedings will have to stop for a full year before they can be discussed again.