Where the sidewalk ends

On July 11, the Missoula County commissioners put the kibosh on City Council's hope to put a 2-cent gas tax before voters in November to help pay for new sidewalks. The three commissioners wrote in a letter that the proposed tax "deepens a divide between urban and rural residents by rolling rural residents into your proposed solution."

The problem is that installing sidewalks along the average city lot can cost several thousand dollars, and the owner of that lot is on the hook for the whole sum—despite the fact that sidewalks are public infrastructure on city property.

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City Council's been grappling with ways to ease the pain when the Public Works Department comes knocking. Now that the gas tax is off the table, councilors are expected to revisit a proposed sidewalk subsidy that would be funded by a property tax hike. The Public Works Committee drafted the plan late last year and council subsequently held hearings. "Hopefully we'll get back to this soon," says Councilman Bob Jaffe. "It'd just be nice to finish it up."

In a way, though, the subsidy's already in place. Jaffe explains that the city will help pay for some residential sidewalks installed this year by selling a bond in the coming months, and the first bond payment won't be due until next year; the subsidy's budgetary consequence would always hit a year later. "We've already approved five or six sidewalk projects ... with the understanding that we're going to have this or some very similar subsidy program," Jaffe says.

He adds that "it's kind of an unusual thing" to be "committing an expense for a future council, because once we set this rolling, they can't really go back." While it's possible that next year's council could change its mind and reject the subsidy, Jaffe says that would be a "pretty massive reversal."

The actual level of subsidy remains in flux. The Public Works Committee devised a model similar to a health insurance policy, with a $300 "deductible" and 30 percent "co-pay" up to a maximum out-of-pocket expense of $2,000. Jaffe says that could be replaced with only a maximum out-of-pocket expense.

"We're not going to change the ordinance that authorizes us to charge people for their sidewalks," Jaffe says. "This will be in addition to that—we'll have this tool for subsidizing. The level of subsidy is something that's going to be flexible. I'm sure we're not going to lock ourselves in."

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