Ponying up 

Missoula County residents will have the opportunity to vote Tuesday on whether or not they want to exchange slightly higher property taxes for a 245-acre regional park at Fort Missoula.

The referendum, 2003-081, would give Missoula County Commissioners the authority to raise property taxes by up to four mills over a maximum of 20 years. This means that a person who owns a $150,000 house could expect to pay up to an additional $20 each year in taxes, says County Commissioner Bill Carey.

The current park at Fort Missoula covers about 60 acres. Should the resolution pass, the city of Missoula will release another 100 acres of Fort Missoula land that it bought as a result of the open space act of 1998. In addition, the JTL Group, a regional corporation, has offered to donate 85 acres of river land once the park is close to being operational. Parks and Recreation Department Director Donna Gaukler initially proposed the idea to the County Commissioners because Missoula County doesn’t have an exceptional regional park. In addition, with as much space as this park could provide, the opportunities for use are nearly limitless.

If approved, the park will include enough soccer fields to make it a destination spot, softball fields, hiking trails, picnic spots, access to the Bitterroot river and a swimming pond, among other things. When completed, its size will far surpass any other park in the county.

“We’re talking about a park that’s so big, you’ll want a road that goes through it,” says Gaukler.

Of course, the $600,000 to be raised annually by the resolution won’t even come close to paying for the activities that the park will offer. However, says Gaukler, it is difficult to get the necessary federal matching funds and private donations without some evidence of community support.

Another resolution benefit is that ten percent of its proceeds will go towards the maintenance and repair of other county parks. Currently, county parks have no money set aside for these kinds of improvements.

Carey isn’t aware of any organized resistance to the referendum, but can understand that some might be against taxes being raised for any reason. However, he believes the trade-off will be worth it.

“The concept is to build a beautiful regional park,” he says. “What we’re trying to build will be something extraordinary.”

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