New tax on tap?

Despite opposition from the public and within the Missoula City Council's own ranks, the lawmaking body on March 10 moved forward with a proposal to create a new special tax district to fund emergency services.

If approved, the district would add $11 in taxes to a home valued at $250,000 by next year. In 2016, it would cost an additional $24.

When explaining the importance of the proposed "Public Safety and Justice District," the Missoula Police Department itemizes its laundry list of impending needs, including the costs associated with complying with U.S. Department of Justice directives on dealing with sexual assault investigations.

According to MPD Chief Mike Brady, roughly $300,000 of the $350,000 set aside through the district in 2015 would cover costs associated with DOJ compliance. In 2016, $250,000 of the $800,000 generated would fund federal directives.

Councilman Jason Wiener supports creation of the Public Safety District. He explains that while cash would initially flow out of it quickly, the new revenue would enable Missoula to borrow at a low interest rate the $5.2 million necessary to build a training facility and evidence storage warehouse for MPD. "Once the funding is in place, then we can construct the new facility," Wiener says.

Councilman Jon Wilkins agrees that the department needs new digs. He also endorses MPD's efforts to improve sexual assault investigations. He takes exception, however, to the mechanism proposed to generate the money.

"I've seen my taxes go up and up," Wilkins says. "It just keeps building."

Special districts have fewer legal constraints than general fund assessments. The differences encourage the use of special districts to increase taxes with little oversight, he says. Wilkins points to a special road district created by council in 2010 as an example. In 2011, the special road district generated $300,000. This year it will raise $704,498.

Rather than leaving lawmakers to create a new pot of cash for police, fire and the courts, Wilkins says he'd like to see voters decide.

Wilkins could get his wish. In the coming weeks, the city will begin notifying property owners through the mail of the proposal. If more than 10 percent reject the pitch, the question will go on the ballot.

Council will hold a public hearing on March 24 to further debate the district.

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