Why did 27,400 folks vote against the Emergency Operations Center here in Missoula County? I suggest it is because they don’t want to pay for someone else’s growth.
Somewhat overshadowed by the big-ticket races, there were a number of important financial decisions on the ballot this year. Voters here and across the state approved paying higher property taxes to support the University system, and they supported socialized health care through an expansion of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. But, when it came time to cough up for the Sheriff’s Office, 9-1-1 Center, and other first response agencies in the city, county and region, a majority of folks voted ‘No’.
So, what happened? A good, solid center-right policy priority like Emergency Services should have been a shoe-in compared to those pinko programs like education and health, right? Maybe in times of economic belt-tightening our priorities change? Maybe right now we don’t need fancy new digs for our cops when kids can’t get health coverage and our best & brightest are leaving the state for their college education.
But, I think it all comes down to growth. I don’t think the Missoulian editorial writers quite got it right when they said, “we certainly want to be able to accommodate any growth in the demand for emergency services“. I don’t know about you, but my demand for emergency services hasn’t gone up … I’m not falling down stairs any more than I used to (Election night was an anomaly, I swear!), and I’m not committing more crimes than I used to. No, the only reason demand for emergency services is going up is that there are more people here in the County than there used to be. Growth.
So, why are you and I being asked to pay for all those new people to move into our little slice of paradise? It’s hard enough as it is to get a parking spot at Costco that perhaps we should think about rolling up the welcome mat in these economic foul weather times. Sure, I like seeing big crowds at Grizzly matches and it’s great that our merchants can move into bigger premises as their clientele base grows (Kettlehouse and La Petit Outre are two examples). But, who gains the benefits of growth and who pays the cost?
There’s going to be a limit to how fast and how far this community grows. I think the message of this ballot initiative is that we really can’t afford to keep growing. We can’t afford to pay for all the infrastructure that those new folks are going to insist we provide. I keep hearing that we can’t afford to protect our kids, our neighbors, and the little old ladies with properly constructed streets (curb, gutter, bike lane, and sidewalks on all existing city streets by 2020). So, how exactly is it, then, that we can afford to build new streets?
Maybe it is time for us to make the developers and growth advocates fully pay for their expansion plans. And I don’t just mean the obvious infrastructure needs, but also the costs that are otherwise borne by all of us – the cost of welcoming them into our community – such as the hidden costs of providing a clean and healthful environment for present and future generations, as our Montana constitution directs. Things like clean air, clean water and other environmental life support systems. Because those things are finite and there’s no way we can afford to buy them from someone else!