Citing equity issues and the opportunity to guide growth, the Missoula City Council voted Monday night to annex 3,200 acres west of the city.
The rapidly developing area includes Missoula International Airport, the Missoula Development Park, Canyon Creek Village subdivision and DeSmet School.
Councilwoman Julie Armstrong cast the lone “no” vote, while Councilman Jesse Ramos abstained from voting. (Ramos later explained that he was “firmly opposed,” but had to abstain because he expressed his opposition to the annexation last week – at the wrong public hearing.)
Mayor John Engen, while having no vote, endorsed the motion, reminding the audience and council members that “there is a question of equity here.”
“This area isn’t an island,” the mayor said. “It doesn’t sustain itself.”
“The folks who are living out there are doing business within the city limits, some of them own businesses within the city limits, their kids go to school within the city limits, and frankly to date, they’ve been getting a bargain,” Engen said. “They’ve been enjoying all of the benefits associated with proximity to the city of Missoula and the services we provide at a bargain rate.”
“We subsidize suburbs, right, at the city of Missoula,” he added. “These businesses wouldn’t be there and these residences wouldn’t be there, but for the fact that there’s a city called Missoula that makes all that work.”
Echoing the 10 City Council members who voted “yes,” Engen emphasized that the annexation provides the city of Missoula with “the opportunity to plan, the opportunity to guide growth, the opportunity to assist with that growth.”
Added Ward 4 Councilman John DiBari, “This annexation makes sense for the orderly and predictable development of the community and to advance good community planning.”
The airport, development park and subdivision have not been underserved in the past, DiBari said, “rather they have been overserved.”
“Because these properties sit at the edge of the city of Missoula, some of them literally right across the street from the city line, the area has received, free of charge, all the services and benefits that come with the city of Missoula being right next door,” he said, listing cultural venues and events, job centers, the University of Montana, recreational facilities, city police and fire protection.
A handful of business and home owners who spoke at Monday’s public hearing didn’t see the bargains, though.
Business owners at Missoula Development Park told council members they were forced to sign waivers – against their will – agreeing not to protest annexation when they connected to city sewer.
“It was forced on me,” said Don Snavely, who with his wife owns a property in the development park and is “very much opposed” to annexation.
“Let’s bring a little bit of reality to this,” he said. “These petitions were a no-choice petition. Why don’t we go out and interview people and see what they think now? Almost to a one, they do not want annexation.”
“The real purpose here is not to make life of the people in this district better, it’s to get money from our district to cover other budget downfalls of the city. It’s as simple as that.”
The annexation has destroyed his ability to develop the property, Snavely said. “Taxes are real items. Tenants have to pave them.” And the annexation is projected to increase property taxes in the area by 20 percent.
“We don’t need you,” Snavely said.
The math didn’t pencil out for Councilwoman Armstrong either. She reminded her fellow councilors that the state’s recent reassessment already increased property taxes in the area by between 22 percent and 54 percent. Annexation will add another 20 percent onto that.
In addition, Armstrong said she was troubled by the fact that those added taxes will bring $1 million into the city, but they’ll be offset by a projected $700,000 in extra costs.
To disrupt so many lives, likely pushing some businesses into closure, for $300,000 in extra revenue is wrong, she said. “I’m not even close to good on this.”
Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss, speaking only as a resident of Ward 2, criticized the annexation on a number of fronts.
“This is not an underserved or unplanned area of the county,” said Curtiss, whose tenure on the commission ends later this month. “This area already has law enforcement and fire protection.”
She also predicted that the higher city taxes would make homes in Canyon Creek Village unaffordable, further deepening Missoula’s affordable housing issues.
Curtiss said Canyon Creek has welcomed many first-time homebuyers over the years, but that will quickly end following the city’s takeover.
Again, DiBari provided the counterpoint.
In a written statement released following the meeting, DiBari said the City Council “takes seriously advancing public policy regarding housing.”
The city is in the midst of developing a full-blown housing policy, he said, and officials intend to “be smart about what areas of the community are better suited to this purpose.”
His preference: “Our Focus Inward directive is a much better approach to maximizing investments already made in community development and providing the best opportunity for a range of housing options for residents of all income levels.”
It all comes back to planning for growth, said Ward 2 Councilman Jordan Hess, who said the annexation gave him hundreds of new constituents.
“To me, the chief benefit of annexation is our ability to influence planning in the area,” Hess said. “Growth in this area is absolutely inevitable.”
And to the new city residents, the mayor had a message:
“This is a relatively small price to get a couple of things,” Engen said. “One is, to pay your fair share of the services you receive outside of where you live or where you do business. And you get the franchise, you get to vote, and if you don’t agree with me you’ll have lots of opportunity to make me aware of that.”