Budget Passed, Gas Tax Considered

By Beacon Staff

Kalispell City Council made quick work Monday night of the city’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, voting to fund everything from urban forestry to street maintenance to the annual tax levies.

While the voting was quick – almost every item passed unanimously – the council took a long time reaching that point. It has been deliberating the individual sections of the city’s budget in work sessions for months.

The budget adopted by the council totaled $64,809,062 for 2008, up from the $63,246,606 preliminary budget originally offered to the council, but down slightly from the previous year.

The general fund increased 19.2 percent, City Manager Jim Patrick told the council, due mainly to inflationary increases in fuel and insurance for city employees. The Kalispell Police Department is also adding two officers, a resource officer for Glacier High school and a patrol officer. The fire department plans to purchase a new ladder truck for $695,000, to be paid for through loans and impact fees. And, Patrick said, someone donated $290,000 to the city police to purchase a new armored vehicle for SWAT operations.

The Conrad Mansion museum will also receive $46,000 in assistance funds for repairs and renovations. Roughly $20 million of the total budget will go to increasing the capacity for the wastewater treatment plant.

After the meeting adjourned, the council discussed a proposal by the Flathead County Commission to participate in an interlocal agreement that would collect a gas tax of a few cents on every gallon of gas as a way to fund much-needed road repairs and maintenance throughout the valley.

Attendance at the meeting and workshop was sparse, but one Somers service station owner said the tax would cut into his already tight profit margins. Another citizen questioned why the council wasn’t moving faster to impose transportation impact fees on new development as a way to pay for some of the road maintenance.

The council can’t impose the tax, but it can vote to put it on the ballot to let voters decide in November’s elections. Many council members spoke positively of the idea, so long as it didn’t impose disadvantages on small service station owners; many council members said they would like to see proof no small business owners would be harmed before they would support the idea.

Others described the gas tax as a way to get the approximately one million tourists the Flathead hosts every summer to pay for some of the wear and tear on roads and services – particularly in light of years of unsuccessful attempts to get the state Legislature to allow a local option sales tax.

The always outspoken Councilman Bob Hafferman took the wide view, railing against the decreases in revenue to Kalispell and other Northwest city governments that coincided with declines in extractive industries.

“We have quit mining and we have quit logging, and it’s pathetic and for what?” Hafferman said. “For an increase in property tax and we let the damn thing burn.”

Some better forest management might get “the funds rolling at least somewhat back in,” he said, and until then, “I’m not willing to vote for any new tax increase at all.”

Mayor Pam Kennedy said the council will likely take up a vote on allowing the public to decide the gas tax at its next formal meeting September 4, or later in the month.