Missoula City Council to consider supporting new open space bond for 2018 ballot

Volunteers cut new trail on the South Hills Spur, one of newest open space areas acquired by the city using funding from the 2006 Open Space Bond. Advocates of open space are asking city and county leaders to approve a new $15 million bond for the 2018 ballot. (Missoula Current file photo)

The city of Missoula will consider placing its support behind an open space bond for the November ballot to generate roughly $15 million toward the conservation and management of open space across the county.

The request for City Council approval is being sought by Mayor John Engen, though the ultimate decision for a countywide general obligation bond will fall to the Missoula County Board of Commissioners later this summer.

“It has to go before a public meeting, and all three commissioners have to support it, so it’s not a majority, it’s unanimous,” said Vickie’s Zeier, the county’s chief administrative officer. “It has to be passed 85 days before the election, so I believe the deadline for any type of bond issue would have to be to the election administrator some time in the middle of August.”

Missoula County voters approved a similar $5 million bond in 1995 and a second $10 million bond in 2006 – the last open space bond to hit the ballot. Roughly $320,000 remains in the city’s portion of the 2006 bond and roughly $500,000 in the county’s portion.

The proposed bond and associated mill levy would generate $15 million, evenly split between the city and the county. The estimated cost of the general obligation bond for a $265,00 home – just below the current median price in Missoula – is $17.94 a year.

The proposed perpetual mill for stewardship would cost the owner of the same home $14.31.

“As Missoula’s population grows, the importance of open space conservation remains as relevant today as it has been in decades past, if not more,” Rob Erickson, chair of the Open Space Bond Advisory Committee, wrote in a letter of support. “Absent additional funding, the community will be without a mechanism to preserve open space, parkland and trail connections, among many other things, for the first time in nearly 40 years.”

A proposed breakdown of the city’s portion of the proposed bond and mill levy would include $1.5 million for Clark Fork River restoration and access, and $3 million to acquire open space, habitat, and trail and wildlife corridors.

An additional $250,000 would go toward reforesting city parks while $500,000 would be earmarked for management of open space lands. An additional $2.25 million would be identified for urban pathways.

Advocates of the proposal withheld comment on Tuesday, citing Wednesday’s public meeting during which the City Council’s Committee of the Whole will consider adopting a resolution of support. If approved, the resolution would be adopted by the full City Council next Monday.

Such support would be weighed later this summer by Missoula County.

“When the commissioners are considering a bond, they do want to know what the take is from our partners, like the city of Missoula,” said Zeier. “The city doesn’t have any say in the actual, final vote.”

Missoula County voters approved a $42 million parks and trails bond in 2014, followed the next year by a $158 million bond for Missoula County Public Schools. In 2016, voters approved a $30 million library bond.

Voters also approved two levies in the special school election this May, including $305,000 for the elementary school district and $170,000 for the high school district. Talk of a general obligation bond to establish a housing trust fund have also begun, though nothing there is yet official.

“Our community has a history of preserving these special places via open space bonds,” background information prepared by Parks and Recreation Director Donna Guakler suggests. “It has been 12 years since the 2006 County-City Open Space General Obligation Bond and the funds are nearly depleted. Yet, much work remains.”