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The city of Helena is considering increasing two parks-related property assessments and adding more than $350,000 to the city's parks and recreation budget.

The two potential rate increases would nearly double the Parks and Recreation Urban Forestry assessment and add less than 5% to the Open Lands assessment for next year's budget.

The Urban Forestry assessment would rise from $21 to $39 per year per property, or from $1.75 to $3.25 per month, and boost the Urban Forestry budget from $256,483 to $425,953.

The annual Open Lands assessment of $20 per property would rise by 75 cents per month, which would add $175,000 to the current budget of $386,915.

The assessments were brought up at the city commission's April 17 meeting. 

"We are not making any decisions right now," City Manager Ana Cortez said at the meeting.

The city commission plans to discuss the possible assessments during a three-hour special meeting scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Sunday in Room 326 of the City-County Building.

The Urban Forestry assessment, used to care for Helena's trees, was established in 1997 at 83 cents per property per month. It doubled to $1.67 in 2010, and was increased to $1.75 in 2014.

If the current proposal moves forward, it will be the largest amount added to the assessment to date. A 2011 Urban Forestry Management Plan conducted by the city recommended an assessment of $4.17 per month, according to documents provided at the April 17 meeting. For comparison, Kalispell charges $2.92 per month for its urban forestry program, Bozeman $2.17 and Great Falls $6.80.

Interim parks and recreation Director Craig Marr said the increase in rates would be used to add more trees to Helena.

"We'll be replacing trees, and the real goal is species diversity," Marr said.

The city is hoping to head off the damage caused by the emerald ash borer, an insect species that has been inexorably moving through the United States and killing ash trees at a high rate. 

The possible rate hike would allow the city to tend to more trees and offer "improved customer service," according to the handout.

The new money also would be used to add employees who would tend to the needs of Helena's urban forests.

"It doubles the number of removals and planting," Marr said. 

The Open Lands assessment would provide additional staff to bolster the seasonal needs and full-time positions in the open lands area. The higher costs for landowners in Helena would go to trail maintenance, the new Beattie Street trailhead, overhead and an Open Lands Plan update, according to Marr. 

Marr suggested that the need for higher assessments comes from a battery of parks and recreation costs, including fire mitigation, weed control and other maintenance.

He also noted in his handout that Helena is unique among other municipalities like Kalispell, Bozeman and Great Falls in that the city is in charge of "extensive" open lands. The other cities do not have assessments for the care of their open lands, but rather support them from the general fund.

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Crime and Health Reporter

Crime and health reporter for the Helena Independent Record.

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