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?