Officials from the Montana State Legislature, the Great Falls City Commission and the Cascade County Commission met on Tuesday to outline issues the city and county want the legislature to consider in its next session.
During the special working session of the Joint City/County Committee and Local/Regional Legislators, commissioners and other stakeholders discussed issues such as housing, community development, workforce, Malmstrom Air Base, taxes, etc. The goal was to advance the drafting of legislation ahead of the session so lawmakers could address the most common concerns.
Ten attended to represent the legislature, five of whom were potential legislators. The event was led by Representative Steve Galloway and City Commissioner Joe McKenney.
“We have a housing crisis at this point,” said Jolene Schalper, senior vice president of the Great Falls Development Authority.
Schalper’s concerns included zoning flexibility, attracting new developers, tax increment financing (TIF), and tax abatement. She said more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) would relieve the city of the pressure that comes with adding infrastructure to outlying developments. An ADU is a secondary house or apartment on the same lot as a larger main house.
Schalper encouraged the legislature to look at what other prosperous cities are doing well and keep zoning regulations flexible enough to meet housing needs.
The TIF and tax abatement, Schalper said, are critical to his job, especially since Montana has no sales tax to draw on. She used the Holiday Village Mall as an example. Schalper said that in states with a sales tax, the retailer would receive a portion of the sales tax. She said the lack of these funds is the reason the mall is not making large-scale improvements.
Sales tax funds in other states also pay for infrastructure, Schalper said, and forcing developers to bear that infrastructure cost requires them to go through Great Falls.
Sherrie Arey of NeighborWorks Great Falls echoed Schalper’s concerns. She added that ADUs improve property values while providing homes for new tenants and seniors looking to downsize. She also said that having more housing would lower the cost of housing. She said now is the time to encourage the creation of more housing through the state’s low-income tax credit, a bipartisan effort passed in the legislature two years ago but opposed by the governor. his veto.
City Manager Greg Doyon spoke out against Constitutional Initiative 121, which would significantly change property taxation in Montana. He said there are other ways to deal with property tax issues.
Doyon also continued to address the issue of housing, applauding West Bank Landing as a TIF success story.
Legalized marijuana, Doyon said, should be taxed wherever possible, “Partly because you’ll never recoup the negative impact marijuana use has on a community, even with how little you’re going to get, so I would like not to give them a pass…”
Doyon was the first to bring up Malmstrom Air Force Base and the Montana Air National Guard, but it was a topic that loomed large during the meeting.
“Montana is way behind in the way it defends its military interests,” Doyon said, adding that this is more than just a Great Falls problem. He said other states are pouring millions into attracting and retaining missions, and he said Great Falls was behind the eight ball in his advocacy.
Rep. Scot Kerns also addressed the subject, saying the city needs preparation in addition to advocacy. He said we needed a comprehensive approach to prepare for the influx of people and money as the Sentinel missile system comes online.
Municipal Court Judge Greg Bolstad invited lawmakers to contact him about bills that impact the justice system to discuss possible unintended consequences. He said legislation sometimes strains court resources and law enforcement that lawmakers may miss if they don’t speak to those the bill will affect.
County Commissioner Joe Briggs took the initiative to brief lawmakers on county priorities in the areas of local government revenue, property assessments, broadband rollout and the Department of Revenue.
Briggs said the county commission has operated for 20 years under a constitutional initiative that caps the amount it can raise taxes based on the rate of inflation. With low inflation and fairly good growth over the past few years, Briggs said that hasn’t been such a big issue. Now, however, high inflation is causing problems, especially in smaller counties that haven’t done so well in economic development.
The duty share, Briggs said, provides the county with a share of revenue that counties don’t normally receive a portion of and helps offset the county’s overwhelming reliance on property taxes. Briggs’ number one request to the Legislature was to stop plundering that share of law at the end of the session.
Briggs then moved on to property assessments, saying the influx of out-of-state money is driving up assessments because of the way we value properties using comparables.
“So if you haven’t done anything to your house, but down the street someone from out of state buys a house that’s 50 or 60 percent above market value, that changes your price “Briggs said, adding that other counties have faced long-term residents being driven from their homes because they can no longer pay property taxes.
Briggs’ next issue was broadband rollout, and he said, “We’re not only lagging behind, we’re actually listed as the worst state in rollout by the NTIA (National Telecommunications Administration). and information).”
Topography and population come into play, but he said the real hurdle is that counties cannot legally be involved in rolling out infrastructure for broadband. That means counties are running out of federal dollars to help roll out broadband.
Finally, Briggs talked about the commission setting its budget and tax levies and relying on the Department of Revenue (DOR) to give them their certified values. He said the commission completed the process to find that the state DOR had negotiated privately with Calumet over the valuation of his property without the knowledge of the local DOR.
“DOR does these things behind closed doors without notice to anyone,” Briggs said.
He asked that the informal process be made more visible and reliable for the city and county.
As the business session drew to a close, City Commissioner Susan Wolff asked that the legislature continue to consider the topics of labor challenges in Great Falls, education, military air, kindergartens and community drug treatment.
Tryon concluded by saying that he would like those present to create a plan to continue to communicate and work to bring forward bills that address the issues discussed at the meeting.
Another working session is scheduled for September.