Who’s gonna pay?

Hoo Boy, I love’s me a City Council Candidate Forum! Them’s candidates just say the dumbest dandiest of things.

Take Kathy Greathouse, candidate to replace Marilyn Marler in Ward 6, who was explaining her dislike of SID’s and other maintenance districts. Last night, Kathy said, “It’s just a tax to cover what the city budget doesn’t cover anymore.”

OK, I’ll admit that I don’t like the nickel and diming approach to paying for our city’s infrastructure. Every time we vote, either directly through the ballot for a mill increase or indirectly through the passage of SIDs by City Council, we are raising our taxes. It’s just that each little piece seems important enough. After all, how else are we going to pay for our fire stations, storm water systems, schools, museums, sidewalks, weed control, street sweeping and such?

Listening to the other ‘conservative’ candidates might help us answer that. According to the Missoulian, John Quandt, a candidate for Ward 3 where Bob Jaffe is the incumbent, isn’t in favor of maintenance districts unless there’s an offset for property owners. I guess that means that non-property owners will pay more!

Furthermore, Quandt suggests another way: community members who care about their neighborhood can volunteer. I know how well that’s going to work out. With our busy, busy lives we’ll now all be out there plowing the streets, teaching our neighbors children, forming a posses to round up the criminals, and giving immunizations at the city health clinics!

Then we throw in Ryan Morton, candidate for Ward 1 against Dave Strohmaier, who says there must be a decrease in general taxes as part of the package. Ward 5 Councilman Dick Haines agrees, saying he would lop $2 million off the city’s budget.

Do you get the pattern? Their vision for the city is no SID’s, an offset of taxes for property owners, and a lowering of general taxes. I don’t think the conservative candidates addressed impact fees (i.e. those who cause the impact should pay), but if they tow the building industry line they’ll be against them. Neither do they talk about local sales tax options, but the Republicans in the last State legislature were against them.

So, boil it all down and no-one should pay! Everyone will like that, right?

Down with government. Bad Government. And these are the people who are asking to run the local government? eek.

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Whiners

It happens every time properties are re-assessed for their worth – wealthy landowners complain it is unfair. For some reason, it made front page of today’s Missoulian.

In a fine piece of puff journalism, we learn of poor poor Donald and Georgia Forney who are worried about whether the government is going to take away their 120 feet of lakeshore on Skidoo Bay. See, they can’t afford all the real estate that they have accumulated.

There’s the farm Forney owns near Great Falls. I don’t think we know how big the farm is, nor how much it is worth. Then there’s the choice home on Flathead Lake which is now worth more than $1 million. That’s the one the family has owned since 1949 and feels entitled to keep. Add them together and I suspect the Forney’s are in the wealthiest 5% of Montanans. Very simply, they own more than most of us ever will.

And that’s the thing, isn’t it? If your wage or salary goes up, you pay more tax. If your investments go up in price, you owe more tax. If you buy a fancy Italian car, then you pay more tax on the wealth inherent in that asset. But, if your Daddy gives you a nice little farm, well … that’s different.

There’s one quote that really ticks me off in the Missoulian article:

I understand part of the problem is that affluent out-of-state people have been buying lakeshore and driving the market. … But it’s killing native Montanans like us.

That’s just plain B.S. It doesn’t matter who is pushing property values higher, nor who owns the property. It will always be the current landowner who is getting wealthier, through no fault of their own. They can use the land as a more valuable asset to borrow money and, say, start or support a small business. They could continue to farm it and gain from its inherent productivity. They can split the land in 2 and sell one part. Or, they can take a reverse mortgage to draw down slightly the value of the asset.

But, for crying out loud, pay your fair share of taxes. You can afford it.

40,000 IOUs

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Clouded behind the health-insurance debate this week was the announcement by the country’s highest military officer that we need to send more troops to Afghanistan. Surprisingly, I didn’t hear a chorus of fiscal conservatives bemoaning the fact that we will need to borrow trillions more dollars to do so.

While Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declined to specify how many more troops are needed, it is commonly thought that 40,000 will be added to the current contingent of 64,000. That’s an increase of around 60% in the continuing cost of the Afghan campaign. But, nary a peep from the Republicans about the increasing size of government! Of course, these military employees will be operating overseas so probably can’t be counted part of the ‘Economic Reinvestment’ stimulus program.

If Republicans were serious about ‘balancing the budget’, then at the same time we consider the wisdom of committing 40,000 of our neighbors to fight a war that few of us understand, we would be discussing which social programs will be cut. Do you think the American public would cut Medicare in order to protect the citizens of Afghanistan? Perhaps we could calculate how much our taxes will need to rise to win this fight? Representative Rehberg? Should you support this influx of troops, I will be waiting to hear how you pay for it.

Sadly, we will be subjected to a rhetoric of ‘a war we have to win’, presumably at whatever cost. Ironically, as Senator Evan Bayh (D – IN) recently pointed out, all this borrowing will diminish our global influence, because fiscal strength is essential to diplomatic leverage, military might, and national significance. Being dependent to foreign debtors is counter to our fiscal DNA, but you know we’re going to have to pay the piper someday. That’s a battle we’ll never quite win!

Who pays?

Looks like some of the many sidewalk and road construction activities are coming to an end for this summer. I can hear the cheers from the bleachers! Certainly our patience for detours, dust, and dead-ends has been tested to breaking point. We’ll all benefit from the safer sidewalks, roadways, and various new infrastructure.

But, spare a thought for the immediate neighbors. Not only have their lives and businesses been majorly impacted, but in so many cases they’ll be paying the costs for years to come. One of my neighbors is facing a bill for over $15,000!

Here in Missoula we have paid for sidewalks, curb & gutters, traffic calming devices, and the like on the backs of the adjacent property owner. If it is not up to code, then sooner or later you’ll be paying to make it so. It is all part of living in the city, and of looking out for the welfare of our fellow citizens.

Unless you live in one of the ‘blighted’ parts of town that is covered by the Missoula Redevelopment Agency!

As the Missoulian reported, MRA is going to pay for $1.85 million worth of sidewalks in the next few years. Yep, if you’re lucky enough to live in one of MRA’s Urban Redevelopment Districts such as near Front Street (downtown), near the Old Fox Theater site (riverfront), a couple blocks either side of Brooks Street (Midtown), or from Toole Ave over the river to the area west of the ball park all the way down just south of the Southgate Mall (district II), then the city coffers are going to build you a sidewalk. That’s a large chunk of town, isn’t it?

Certainly, those areas are badly in need of some civic investment. The sidewalks are either shoddy or non-existent. The lighting inadequate for feeling safe walking home late at night. The architecture is diverse, but the dominant style is darn ugly. And, in many place the vegetation tends towards noxious weed.

But, I don’t remember voting for the landowners in these parts of town to receive special treatment.

In fact, I don’t ever remember voting for the commissioners on the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. That’s because these five fine folks (Hal Fraser, First Security Bank; Dan Kemmis, Center for the Rocky Mountain West; Nancy Moe, attorney; Rosalie Cates, Montana Community Development Corporation; and Karl Englund, attorney) weren’t ever elected to their position on the MRA. They were appointed by the Mayor for four year terms (and many have served multiple terms). I admire their dedication and commitment to the City, as I do all the other people who volunteer for such public service.

MRA spends tax dollars.

Basically, the City froze the amount of money that property owners in the MRA Districts pay. As property values have rises (since 1991), any additional taxes are put into a special fund. It is those tax dollars (“increment taxes”) that the MRA spends.

I love some of what MRA has achieved over the years, such as the parks downtown, the trail system along the river, and Caras Park with its pavilion and carousel.

But, alarm bells go off as soon as we start handing out public dollars to private landowners to ‘improve’ their property. Particularly when this happens without the direct involvement of elected officials.

And now we’ve got the MRA spending tax dollars on something called “fa├žade rehabilitation“. Apparently, it will enhance the “aesthetic and pedestrian environment” and utilize “renewable, recycled and green materials” that will increase the “energy efficiency of buildings in the District”.

Sounds good – when do I get mine?