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Monday conversation: Local gas tax money unavailable for Missoula

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Posted at 12:58 PM, Sep 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-13 15:07:42-04

MISSOULA — We talked with Martin Kidston, founding editor of the Missoula Current to learn more about Missoula County losing a revenue stream with a local gas tax.

"Yeah, that's kind of been the talk of the City and County since the legislature convened earlier this year. During that time the legislature revoked the local option fuel tax and the governor signed that bill. The county no longer has the access to the 2¢ per gallon sales tax, going toward road construction and maintenance,” Kidston explained.

The money had been budgeted but now, it is no longer available.

"This goes back to last year when the city and the county and the business lobby in Missoula worked really hard to get that passed. Voters in Missoula County approved the tax last June by a 51 to 49% margin, so it was a close vote, but the voters decided they wanted that tax,” Kidston said.

“Advocates said it would sort of tap into the tourist stream. This is something Missoula hasn't done, or couldn't do because of law. And so, that 2¢ a gallon tax was a way to get a few cents out of the tourists that come through Missoula.”

“So that is unavailable, so the county and the city are now saying that the entirety of the area maintenance work and prevention is going to fall entirely on the property owners, just like everything else.”

Will the change mean more potholes and items not being repaired?

"That's one way to look at it. The city says it has much as $7 million in deferred maintenance and the county estimates it has about $4 to $5 million dollars in deferred maintenance. The 2¢ sales tax was estimated to bring in about $1.1 million, which would have been split between the city and county,” Kidston said.

“So each organization would have had approximately $500,000 to direct toward road work. So, even as you look at a deferred maintenance backlog that's in the millions, even $500,000 annually isn't a lot of money, but it was money that was sorely needed, at least that's what they say.”

The new law is a change from past practice in Montana.

“In 1979 the legislature actually said that they wanted this option available to cities and counties. The 1979 legislature adopted this, giving cities and counties the option to enact it. Ever since then, no county had ever adopted it until Missoula County voters adopted it last year,” Kidston explained.

“Strangely, just about that time the legislature decided to take that option away, right at the time Missoula County approved the 2¢ a gallon sales tax. It was kind of strange timing."

"And of course, opponents of that sales tax say it's just another sales tax, which they're against. They say it falls on the shoulders of the people who can least afford a 2¢ a gallon sales tax to fill their cars. So that was their reasoning,” Kidston said.

“I feel just watching the process, that it was more of not wanting Missoula to advance beyond the other counties, not have better roads than the other counties. It seems a little more slightful than the argument that was given during the legislature.”

So was Missoula County targeted by the Montana Legislature?

"I think that's what the city and county contend, including the advocates, the Montana Contractors Association, they were in favor of this,” Kidston observed.

“They may feel that with Missoula County going first, and the county's views not necessarily align with the current legislature, that they targeted Missoula specifically, kind of poke them in the eye. That's the word in the City and County," Kidston concluded.