The Helena City Commission voted 4-1 Monday to approve a fiscal year 2020 budget amendment that provides a maximum of $900,000 to complete the Beattie Street Trailhead project.
A final public hearing for the budget amendment is set for 6 p.m. March 9 in the Commission Chambers. The commission will hear any objections to the final adoption of the resolution at this time.
City Commissioner Sean Logan cast the lone dissenting vote. Logan cited the overhaul of the Law and Justice Center to accommodate municipal court, ongoing salary negotiations with the Helena police labor union and recent cuts made to the budgets of the fire and police departments as his reasoning for voting against the amendment.
“I’m struggling with that $400,000,” Logan said, referring to the portion of the total cost that would come from the general fund.
The amendment as written divides the $900,000 cost between various departments. Helena’s Parks, Recreation and Open Lands Department would pay for about $200,000. The city’s Streets Department would shoulder about $300,000 of the cost.
A quarter of the $400,000 coming from the general fund is already earmarked for the project. The remainder coming from the general fund is a contingency only.
“That is meant to be a buffer, the last out,” Finance Department Budget Analyst Chris Couey said during Monday’s meeting.
City staff put out a request for proposals from developers last week. As such, the final costs for the project have yet to be solidified, hence the budget buffer.
City Engineer Ryan Leland said that by the time city commissioners receive the final resolution in March, they will know the final cost of the project.
Eight people spoke, mostly against the project, during the public comment period at Monday's meeting. Grievances ranged from an increase in traffic to a perceived unfairness in cost sharing.
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Helena resident Lynn Boone said she and her husband are currently paying off a 10-year loan that covered the cost of repairing sidewalks around their property.
“I get to pay for my sidewalks and the sidewalks on South Beattie. That’s not fair,” Boone said.
A handful of commenters did express support for the project.
Prickly Pear Land Trust Project Manager Nate Kopp pointed to a 2018 study of Helena’s trail system conducted by the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research as evidence of the trail's importance not only to the local community but also the economy. Prickly Pear Land Trust is the city's primary trail maintenance partner.
The study estimated that more than 63,000 people utilized Helena's South Hills Trails System in 2017, about 20% of which were out-of-town visitors who contributed more than $4 million to the local economy. That number has likely increased since 2017.
One public commenter in support of the project argued that the number of people driving up Beattie Street to access this trail is not going to decrease, so why not provide these people with better facilities and access.
Both City Commissioners Andres Haladay and Heather O'Loughlin emphasized that city staff was engaged in about two years worth of public hearings and open houses, and that the public's concerns during that time have been incorporated into the final design.
"This one has been with us for quite some time," Haladay said. "I am comfortable with where we ended up today."
Haladay also stated that the completion of the Beattie Street Trailhead project amounts to a kept promise.
"We could build a $200,000 trailhead and call it a day," he said. "But I think that would be this commission reneging on a promise we made..."
Editor's note -- This story has been corrected to reflect that the city was engaged in about two years worth of public hearings and open houses on the Beattie Street Trailhead project.