August 08, 2018

Robin's Roost

Back-to-school time on Butte road woes


By Robin Jordan


    Last week, Butte-Silver Bow     Last week, Butte-Silver Bow commissioners passed an ordinance that creates a single road maintenance district for the city-county, eliminating and replacing the four antiquated road maintenance districts, and setting up the mechanism to charge property owners a flat, per-parcel fee on their tax bills.

    Even the plan’s staunchest supporters on the council knew that it would cause backlash from property owners, especially from those who multiple plots of land. But, as several commissioners argued, Butte’s roads are in bad shape and getting worse because the county’s road maintenance budget has been inadequate for many years. 

    The four old maintenance districts had not been revised since the 1970s. Because the community has grown outward from the old city limits and away from the uptown business district, many property owners were paying no road maintenance fees, while many in the old districts felt they were paying more than their share for the maintenance they received. In the old districts, property owners were charged based on the linear footage of their properties abutting the city streets, so those on corner properties bore a greater burden than their neighbors in the middle of city blocks. The fees charged had also not been revised since the 1970s, so the old districts were only generating about $550,000 a year—not near the $1.9 million officials say is the amount needed each year to pay for snow removal, sweeping, flushing and repairs ranging from filling potholes to resurfacing of roads.

    The council first started looking seriously at the problem in the summer of 2015, according to our files. At that time, Public Works Director Dave Schultz suggested raising the fees in the four old districts and creating a rural maintenance district. At the same meeting, the late Dennis Henderson, who was the commissioner for one of the two rural districts, asked about the possibility of raising the local option tax on license plates or imposing a local gasoline tax instead as a way to raise road maintenance dollars. He was told that raising the local option tax would require approval of the voters and that the gas tax, which would be collected through the state, would require complicated administration by the local government and neither would bring in the amount of revenue needed.

    So, predictably, both of Henderson’s suggestions went by the wayside and in the spring of 2017, Chief Executive Dave Palmer broached the idea of a single road maintenance district. As budget discussions progressed that summer, the idea was postponed for later discussion because property taxes were going up, thanks in part to the voter-approved waterpark and the addition of several new county staff positions.

    Now, after many months of discussion in committees, the single maintenance district ordinance has been passed. Commissioners still have to pass a resolution to set the flat fee and at least one public hearing must be held before it is passed.

    Many property tax payers are upset about the flat, per-parcel fee, especially those who own more than one parcel. They point out that the fee is charged on every parcel valued at more than $5,000, whether it is a small, undeveloped lot or the site of a large housing development or a major retail outlet. 

    Commissioners admit that the single road district plan is only part of the solution for Butte’s road maintenance woes. As much as they will hate the idea of going back to committees and giving serious consideration and homework to the ideas of raising the local option tax and/or the local gas tax, that would be the wise thing to do, from a tax-payer’s point of view. If one or both of those options could be utilized, maybe the county could afford to keep the road maintenance fee from being so burdensome to low and fixed income taxpayers and more fairly distribute the cost of keeping the roads in decent shape.

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