The Helena City Commission created two new special improvement districts and passed a long-discussed Complete Streets Policy amid hours of public testimony at a crowded meeting Monday night.
Both of the district proposals — dealing with landfill and tree maintenance — had drawn protest from about 14 percent of the property owners within the city after mail-in ballot cards were sent out a month ago. Several of the individuals who testified before the commission brought along their own copies of the green mailings to the podium, using them as a prop as they expressed their skepticism about increasing annual assessments.
A Landfill Monitoring and Maintenance District was not subject to any favorable comments from members of the audience. But though several individuals questioned the timing and purpose of its creation, the commissioners were quick to clarify that putting the new district in place likely wouldn’t affect the majority of Helena’s property owners because annual solid waste assessments — which are now the source of funding for the former city landfill’s maintenance — would be reduced accordingly. Rather, the new fees would affect the entities that don’t currently utilize the city’s solid waste services and therefore don’t contribute financially to the landfill management. They added that maintenance of the landfill, which closed a decade ago and is now the partial location of Centennial Park, has long been mandated by state regulations.
With that reasoning, they voted in favor of the district unanimously and with little discussion following the public’s comments. It will place a $6 assessment on each residential property and assessments ranging between $15 and $125 on commercial properties, depending on square footage.
The new Urban Forest Management District, however, was subject to split opinions among the commissioners. It will replace the city’s current tree maintenance district, bringing annual assessments from $10 to $20 to fund constant work on Helena’s trees and potentially hire an urban forester with knowledge about the types of trees around the city’s neighborhoods, boulevards and parks.
A special improvement district, rather than property taxes, was identified as the ideal way to fund the work because it would prevent certain entities within city limits from exemption, said City Manager Ron Alles.
After hearing concerns from some members of the public about upping the amount of money home and business owners pay to the city, commissioners Dan Ellison and Matt Elsaesser favored keeping the tree maintenance assessment at $10, though the other commissioners voted the idea down.
Though the “tree thing,” as one member of the public put it, was the subject of much hostility within the commission chambers, it also received praise from several of the meeting’s attendees, who listed various quality-of-life and financial benefits associated with keeping the city’s trees in good shape.
Arborist Sarah Eilers said that when she lived in Bozeman, people paid much higher fees for urban forestry management. She also pointed out that raising the standard of city tree maintenance could prompt people to take better care of their own trees.
But there were certainly critics. Helena resident Barbara Rush accused the city of timing the discussion of the districts right before Christmas so that everybody would be too busy focusing on the holidays to notice what was happening. She adamantly opposed the idea of both of them.
“This city is broke,” she said. “I know you said you had a nice financial audit, but you’re broke.”
That concept was a common thread throughout the hearings. Alan Bock said he’s watched his tax payments grow close to five times what they were in 1996, pointing out that he wasn’t opposed to some of the concepts the city was looking at, just concerned about the fact that they had to be paid for.
“I think we’re dealing with, over and over again, the ‘wouldn’t it be nice?’ factor,” he said.
Former City-County Planning Board member Gary Peterson said he believed the city rushed to get the two districts in place without properly informing the public about the issues.
Conversely, many individuals in a stream of more than a dozen people who spoke in support of the city’s new Complete Streets Policy said they were glad to see such a document come to fruition after two years of discussion and work. However, they asked the city to plan further and implement timelines to ensure that the goals of the policy are carried out.
The Complete Streets resolution aims to prompt engineers to consider accommodations for all forms of transportation — cars, buses, bikes, feet and wheelchairs — when designing and maintaining city roads. An amendment by Commissioner Paul Cartwright specified that by the end of June, the city manager should recommend a process of reviewing the streets and establishing a hierarchy of needs.
The commission also agreed to hand over 18,760 square feet of city land in exchange for $48,650 from the Montana Department of Transportation, which needs the right-of-way to widen Interstate 15 for its Custer Interchange project slated to begin next fall.
Monday was the last of the commission’s meetings until the new year.
Reporter Allison Maier: 447-4075 or firstname.lastname@example.org