Missoula City Councilman Bob Jaffe is proposing the creation of a new gasoline tax of up to 2 cents a gallon that he says will make the cost of installing sidewalks across the Garden City more equitable.
"Instead of one person paying $10,000," he says, "everybody pays $25."
With a few exceptions, landowners are required to pay the cost of installing new sidewalks on adjacent public rights-of-way. Most projects run between $3,000 and $6,000, according to the Missoula Department of Public Works. Depending on lot size and location, however, new sidewalks can cost as much as $20,000.
The idea of spreading the cost is simple enough. But the issue is complicated by the fact that state law mandates a majority of county voters—not just city residents—support creation of such a funding mechanism. Missoula Board of County Commissioners Chair Jean Curtiss says in light of current economic challenges, Jaffe's pitch would be a tough sell for her constituents. "I don't think citizens would support it," she says.
Simply getting the issue on the ballot is the first hurdle. State law spells out two mechanisms to make that happen. The first is through citizen initiative. That would require 15 percent of the county's registered voters to sign a petition supporting the tax. The second avenue is a county commission resolution to place the issue on a ballot.
Despite the fact that the county would receive a share of proceeds generated from the proposed tax—revenue could be used to help pay for trail and road improvements in addition to sidewalk construction—Curtiss says she's not persuaded. "I think it needs way more public discussion," she says.
At least twice during the past two decades, Missoula County has nixed the gas tax idea.
Jaffe recognizes the challenges. When arguing his case, the councilman says it's important for people to understand that the tax would simply spread out existing expenses so that individuals don't get left holding the bag. "They'd be paying this either way."
Jaffe says he thinks that by the end of January, "we'll be making some kind of appeal to the county commissioners to be putting this on the ballot."