Squint at my Missoula sidewalk and you see the bird’s-eye view of a highway cleaved by a massive earthquake. My snow shovel catches the cracked concrete, jamming the handle into my abdomen. This is a problem. Someone’s going to trip, and I’ll be liable. I need to replace it; the city could force me to.
What would it cost? $10,980. That’s what an estimator from construction company Knife River told me last week. He came to my Westside corner lot and measured the broken sidewalk along the front of my property, and the length of my property where a sidewalk should be.
Even though this 1,100-square-foot strip of public infrastructure would be placed on the city-owned boulevard adjacent to my property, I’d have to pay for it, either in cash or by adding the assessment to my tax bill.
Fair or not, this is how Missoula has paid for sidewalks for well over a century, says Doug Harby, the city’s construction project manager of 27 years. Back in the late 1800s, goes the story told to him by an old-timer or two, business owners wanted boardwalks on the unkempt public right-of-ways outside their storefronts. Public officials told them they’d have to pay for and take care of them.
Harby says the city’s first record of sidewalks being assessed to property owners dates back to 1898. The policy has endured.
“Of course, a lot of cities have changed over to where they have a tax for sidewalks, rather than making property owners responsible for them,” Harby says. “But Montana doesn’t have that kind of tax base.”
The Missoula City Council is finally trying to establish one. For the past several months, the Sidewalk Connections Subcommittee has been developing approaches that would avoid saddling property owners with sidewalk assessments that can reach upwards of $15,000. Last week, the committee presented its ideas to the council.
“I’ve been on City Council for six years, I’ve lived in Missoula for 17 years, and I hear a lot…that people in Missoula would like to have more sidewalks,” Councilwoman Marilyn Marler of Ward 6 said during her presentation on Jan. 11. “However, the way that we do sidewalks now…is a big problem. It is such a big problem…that it obstructs the progress of installation. We’re just not able to get the city sidewalk network complete the way we’re doing it now, because it’s expensive to individual people and it takes a really long time.”
Councilors see that changing under a proposal modeled after the health insurance industry. Here’s how it would work:
When you have a sidewalk installed, you’d pay a $300 “deductible.” After the deductible is met, the city pays 70 percent. You pay a 30 percent “co-pay,” up to a maximum out-of-pocket expense of $2,000. The city pays up to $15,000. Anything beyond that reverts back to the property owner. The “premium” is the increase in general taxes necessary to finance the program. That would be about $17 a year for owners of property valued at $225,000. So my $10,980 sidewalk bill, for example, would drop to around $2,300, plus the annual tax increase.
Council is also considering a 2-cents-per-gallon fuel tax, which would raise roughly the same amount, about $800,000 annually—the amount that homeowners are now assessed for sidewalks. That might be harder to get on the books, however, since state law mandates that a majority of county voters support creation of such a funding mechanism. (The new tax revenue would be divided between the city and county.)
From Harby’s perspective, a new tax, however it’s generated, would cut down on the bureaucratic rigmarole that goes along with asking property owners to pay thousands of dollars for sidewalks they may not want and may not be able to afford. “Well over 50 percent of our time in the installation of sidewalks is devoted to the way the system is run and the way that it’s paid for,” he says. “If we make the payment system easier to take, then we can do more work with the same amount of staff. And if we can do more work, we can maybe increase staff”—and get more sidewalks installed.
But it’s another tax, and that creates opposition.
“I don’t want to pay for somebody else’s sidewalks,” Councilman Jon Wilkins of Ward 4 said, adding: “It’s outrageous what you have to pay for a sidewalk. I’m there. I see that. And I cringe every time we have to [charge a resident for a new sidewalk]. But I also cringe every time we have to raise taxes.”
“People may complain about the $17,” answered Councilman Bob Jaffe of Ward 3, “but they certainly complain about the $8,000. One is unfortunate, but the other one is devastating.”
There are also those who say that implementing a new funding mechanism would be unfair to people who recently paid for sidewalks out of pocket, like Tom Parchetta. Six years ago, Parchetta told council last week, he spent more than $10,000 on new sidewalks. “The thought of having to pay entirely for my sidewalk and then essentially subsidize somebody else’s sidewalk, it’s almost insulting,” he said.
Council’s considering ways to apply the new program retroactively. Jaffe said the city ought to “cut it here and live with the pain of the past but not continue to inflict it in the future. That’s still a better choice than continuing to inflict it.”
If council can reach consensus, the new tax would be worked into the fiscal year 2013 budget.