Missoula County commissioners to consider placing countywide gas tax on primary ballot

Deschamps Lane
Deschamps Lane west of Missoula. Missoula County commissioners are seeking public comment as they consider adopting a resolution to place a countywide gas tax on the June 2 primary election ballot. Voters would ultimately decide whether to enact the 2 cent per gallon tax, revenue from which would fund road maintenance and improvements.

Missoula County commissioners are seeking public comment as they consider adopting a resolution to place a countywide gas tax on the June 2 primary election ballot. Missoula County voters would ultimately decide whether to enact the 2 cent per gallon tax, revenue from which would fund road maintenance and improvements.

The first public hearing on the issue will be at the commissioners’ public meeting at 2 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27, in the Sophie Moiese Room at the Missoula County Courthouse. The board will take constituent comments until the public meeting at 2 p.m. Thursday, March 5, when they will vote on whether to adopt the resolution.

In addition to attending the meetings, the public can submit comment by calling 406-258-4877 or emailing bcc@missoulacounty.us.

If adopted, commissioners will sign the resolution at a special administrative public meeting at 3 p.m. Monday, March 9, in Administration Building Room 206 so it can be delivered to the Elections Office by the 5 p.m. filing deadline.

In an effort to pursue revenue sources beyond increasing property taxes, Commissioner Josh Slotnick has worked on this initiative with the City of Missoula and a recently formed local advocacy group over the past several months. Figures estimated by staff indicate a 2-cent per gallon tax would generate an estimated $1.1 million, which would be split equally between Missoula County and the City of Missoula to pay for construction, reconstruction, maintenance and repair of public roads. Estimates show that non-residents visiting the county would generate around $400,000 of the total revenue.

Montana Code Annotated 7-14-301 through 7-14-304 gives county commissioners authority to adopt a resolution placing a local option fuel tax on the ballot. If approved by voters, the tax must be imposed in increments of 1 cent per gallon and cannot exceed 2 cents per gallon. Revenue derived from the tax must be divided among the county and municipalities in the county according to one of the methods outlined in MCA 7-14-303. Missoula is the only incorporated municipality in Missoula County.

Missoula County awards $800,000 in grants through Community Assistance Fund

Food truck CAF
The Missoula Food Bank and Community Center provides many services, including the mobile meal bus, beyond the walls of its facility on Wyoming Street.

During the school year and even into the summer, the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center provides more than 40,000 weekend meals to kiddos experiencing chronic hunger throughout Missoula, Lolo, Frenchtown, Bonner and Clinton. On Fridays, a Kids Empower Pack containing two entrees, snacks, fresh fruit and milk is tucked into the backpacks of school children who otherwise may go hungry over the weekend.

The program is made possible, in part, through a grant from the Missoula County Community Assistance Fund. The CAF is an individual county fund that supports people in our communities who face barriers to the basic needs of food, shelter, medical services and emergency transportation. It accounts for around 2 percent of the taxes you pay to the county (or about $14 on a $300,000 house), and it helps provide a continuum of services to some of our most vulnerable populations.

For fiscal year 2020, Missoula County awarded $805,996 in CAF grants, providing critical financial assistance to the following organizations:

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This year, Partnership Health Center received a $100,000 CAF grant, which will assist in opening a satellite clinic at the Missoula Food Bank. PHC currently serves about 16,000 patients annually throughout Missoula and Mineral counties. In some parts of the city and county, PHC serves up to 95% of people living at low income. In the neighborhood around the Missoula Food Bank, PHC’s data show only 32% of eligible patients are being seen. PHC Director Laurie Francis says the clinic should be open in the spring of 2020, which will help them reach many of the food bank’s 26,000 clients who may not have easy access to medical care.

“We are so excited about this project,” Francis says. “It brings together partnerships and support from Missoula County, as well as the city, PHC and the food bank, to better serve that part of the community.  The amount of good we can do together is astronomic!”

The process to secure a CAF grant is rigorous and involved, requiring a thick stack of documents from local organizations that apply.  A review committee comprised of four community members and one county commissioner independently score the applications. The committee then interviews each organization to learn more about its project to determine which requests will be the best use of taxpayer dollars. County grants staff forward the committee’s recommendations to the county commissioners, who vote on whether to approve them.

CAF chart

“Managing the Community Assistance Fund on behalf of Missoula County is one of the highlights of my position,” says Nancy Rittel, a grants administrator for the county. “Seeing how such a broad array of nonprofit organizations are able to provide vital, basic human needs to babies, children, teenage youth, the elderly and disabled because of the county’s assistance is extremely gratifying.”

As Amy Allison Thompson, executive director of the Poverello Center, notes, “Without CAF funds, we would be hard-pressed to offer the level of assistance to people experiencing homelessness, both on-site at our shelter and throughout the Missoula Valley through the efforts of our Homeless Outreach Team.”

Rittel expresses the county’s appreciation for the important role the citizens review committee plays in awarding CAF grants.

“We always owe a big thank you to the members of the citizens review committee for the hours of unpaid service they spend reading hundreds of pages of application materials and taking time from their lives to participate in agency interviews,” Rittel says. “Ultimately, their dedication leads to funding recommendations for the commissioners that are based on vetted, informed decision-making.”

If your organization provides food, shelter, medical services or emergency transportation and is interested in applying for fiscal year 2021 funding, email Nancy Rittel at nrittel@missoulacounty.us. The application deadline is typically the first week of April. More information on county-funded opportunities is online at http://missoula.co/countyfundops.

Q and A with new Commissioner Juanita Vero

Juanita Vero

Commissioner Juanita Vero started her new job in July after Commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Josh Slotnick appointed her to fill the remainder of Nicole Rowley’s term, which runs through the end of 2020. Vero, a fourth-generation partner of the E Bar L Ranch in Greenough, plans to run for the open seat in the November 2020 election.

“Juan,” as she’s known around the office, took a break from her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her experience so far and what she hopes to accomplish in the future.

Why did you want to serve as a commissioner?

I don’t think many folks say, “I want to be a county commissioner.” I’m from a rural part of the county and there’s not always a lot of trust in government. In fact, I can think of numerous times I’ve told people, “Man, there’s no way I’d want to be a county commissioner … they just get chaffed coming and going, trying to serve unsatisfied citizens with limited resources. No one is ever pleased with you.”

The reason I changed my attitude is that I was asked to consider the position by some folks I respect. I had a contemplative birthday weekend in Recluse, Wyoming, and took stock of the years I’d spent serving on various nonprofit boards and committees focused on natural resource, community-based conservation. I have a deep love for Missoula County, its complexities and contradictions, and realized I had the capacity to have a positive impact so I shouldn’t squander it. My high school motto is Not ut sibi ministretur sed ut ministret or “Not to be served but to serve.”

What does a typical day look like for you so far?

We take an impressive number of back to back meetings, both standing and scheduled, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., with some evening obligations, such as community events or public meetings. Generally, the day is a whirlwind of staff reports or presentations from various county departments or organizations from across the county, field tours, and, of course, public hearings. I joke that one could get a concussion merely sitting through a day of meetings — one minute we’re discussing paving rollers and pavement recipes, the next it’s early detection of autism for children under 5, a building in this department has boiler or HVAC issues, this riparian corridor should be protected, that building needs a new roof, and oh, there’s illegal camping going on in a right-of-way and what are we to do about folks who are working but forced to live in their cars, and this developer needs a variance on fire code because of new building design, someone vandalized Fort Missoula Historical Museum, this staff member is retiring or promoted and it will take two new hires to do the job, Seeley Lake needs a sewer, and, yes, we need to figure out a budget for 118,000 people living across 2,618 square miles. I usually find myself back in the office in the evening when it’s quiet and I have a chance to process what happened that day and catch up on email.

 What do you think are the most pressing issues facing Missoula County?

This isn’t very sexy, but it’s our taxing structure — that we rely so heavily on property taxes to fund all the important and necessary services that make Missoula County a great place to live is problematic. It’s also a blow that revenue from other sources has steadily declined, whether it’s due to state and federal cuts to social services, decreases in PILT money (payment in lieu of taxes we receive for government-owned property in the county) or insufficient reimbursement for housing state inmates at our county jail.

Another challenge is balancing growth while preserving our collective senses of place. Change is hard, and everyone in Missoula County − urban, rural and in the “doughnut” − identify with the ground, the landscape and the people around them in their corner of the county. Adding 20,000 people over the next couple of decades and seeing new things pop up in our old haunts can feel disorienting. County leadership can help set the tone in how we navigate that and how people might feel about it at the end of the day.

What are some of your goals for your first year in office?

I don’t consider myself a politician, and I find it rather presumptuous to roll into a new position, a new culture and start making grand gestures. I’m reminded of a wilderness first responder maxim, “before doing anything, survey the scene.” I had an instructor who recommended taking the time to eat a Snickers bar — and observe what was going on — before administering aid. My goal for the coming year is to eat that Snickers bar, to listen, learn and absorb as much as possible and ultimately create the space or conditions for staff to feel empowered to do their best work and for citizens to feel heard and able to create the community in which they want to live. I’m honored to be part of this commission. We won’t always agree, but I’m very excited to be working alongside Commissioners Strohmaier and Slotnick.

What has surprised you most since starting your new job?

I’ve never worked indoors in an air-conditioned office before. It takes a bit of getting used to. In all seriousness, I wasn’t expecting to fall in love every day with the people (citizens and staff) of Missoula County. Even those who are upset with us impress me with how much they care and are trying to do what’s right for their families and their community. We are incredibly fortunate to live here, and if any place can grapple with sticky issues, Missoula County can.

Now is the time to weigh in on the Missoula County budget

Revenues

Missoula County has released its preliminary budget for fiscal year 2020, and now commissioners want to hear from you.

To review the budget, head to http://missoula.co/budgets. There, you can access:

  • The preliminary, aka sustainment, budget. This budget reflects what it will cost to sustain current county operations. The sustainment budget factors in any increases in employee wages, benefits, utility costs, etc., that the county will experience in the coming fiscal year.
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    The sustainment budget is based on last year’s revenue. (Read How Missoula County calculates expenditures and revenues to understand why the county is using last year’s revenue to build this year’s budget.)

    Expenditures
    At first glance, it may look like the county’s expenditures will exceed revenue by $16.4 million, but that’s not the case. The reason revenue appears to be $16.4 million less than expenditures in FY20 is because the revenue needed to complete construction of the new Missoula Public Library was received in FY19 after the county issued voter-approved bonds to finance the project. The $27.5 million in bond revenue was placed in a construction reserve account (a savings account, basically) and is used to pay construction invoices each month. The county had approximately $18.8 million in that reserve account at the beginning the FY20, which will cover the cost to finish building the library by the end of the fiscal year (June 2020). So even though the county won’t receive that revenue in FY20, we have the money on hand to cover those expenses in FY20.

    As it currently stands, the county will need an additional $1.1 million to sustain current operations this year, when basing the budget on last year’s revenue. Once the county receives certified taxable values from the state Department of Revenue in August, we’ll adjust the budget to more accurately reflect how expenditures compare to revenues.

  • The list of budget requests that departments are asking for to enhance services and improve current operations by adding new staff, technology or equipment. Approved requests would add to the $1.1. million already needed to sustain operations and services as-is. (County staff are working to compile descriptions of these requests and will post those online as well.)
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    The commissioners have yet to make any decisions on which requests to fund. This is where you come in: The commissioners want to hear from taxpayers on what you think their priorities should be when considering these requests.

You can comment by:

  • Calling the Commissioners’ Office at 406-258-4877
  • Emailing bcc@missoulacounty.us
  • Mailing comments to the Commissioners’ Office, 200 W. Broadway St., Missoula, MT 59802.
  • Attending any public meeting, which are listed online at http://missoula.co/bccmeetings.

After considering public comment and weighing priorities, the commissioners will vote to approve or deny each request, which will be reflected in the final budget presented at the public hearing at 2 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22, in the Sophie Moiese Room in the Courthouse Annex, 200 W. Broadway. If you don’t get your comments in by then, you can attend the hearing and make your voice heard.

After they consider additional public comment received at the Aug. 22 hearing, the commissioners will vote to adopt the final budget at their administrative public meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 4. That meeting will take place at 10 a.m. in Room 206 of the Missoula County Administrative Building, located at 199 W. Pine St. in Missoula.

Additional Missoula County budget resources:

2019 Budget in Brief
Video Tutorial: How to Look Up Your Property Taxes Online
Commissioners’ schedule
Commissioners’ meeting minutes and agenda portal 

Surprised by your property appraisal? Here are your options

DOR cropped

Did you recently receive this document in the mail?

This is not a tax bill from Missoula County. It’s an appraisal notice issued by the Montana Department of Revenue showing the current assessed value of your property. DOR appraises the value of real property every two years, so the value listed on your form applies to tax years 2019 and 2020. The state DOR, not the county, calculates this value, which is a key factor in determining the property taxes you’ll owe this year. Those property taxes help fund several taxing jurisdictions you live in, including the county.

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Many Missoula County residents are experiencing sticker shock upon opening their notices. If you feel the assessed value on your property is inaccurate, you can appeal it during a 30-day window from June 18 through July 18. Do not wait until you receive your tax bill in October – it will be too late!

You can start this process in one of two ways:

If you miss the July 18 deadline, you can still appeal the assessment until June 1, 2020. But if you wait until then to appeal, any changes to your assessment would only apply to tax year 2020, not the 2019 tax bill you’ll receive this fall.

It’s also important to note that the estimated taxes listed on the notice do not include special assessments. Special assessments are determined by the location of your property, i.e., if you live in a certain school, fire, water quality or other special district. You can view the special assessments that will be levied on your property by downloading your current tax bill on the Missoula County iTax website.

Still have questions about your appraisal notice? Contact a DOR property assessment field office to talk to an appraiser.