County Gas Tax Losing Momentum

By Beacon Staff

COLUMBIA FALLS – Flathead County Commissioners’ proposal to let voters decide on a gasoline tax to pay for road improvements, has, well, pretty much run out of gas.

Commissioners Joe Brenneman and Gary Hall discussed the gas tax Monday night at a joint work session – at which no votes were allowed – with the city councils of Whitefish, Kalispell and Columbia Falls.

“I believe we’re losing our political will,” Brenneman said about the commission’s opinion of the proposed gas tax. “I don’t think it’s going to get what we need and would be a wasted effort.”

The proposal would have allowed for a two-to-four cents per gallon tax on gasoline, but details of how the tax would ultimately be implemented led to numerous problems. Brenneman said he believed it would put gas station owners at a competitive disadvantage to gas stations outside Flathead County, and that gas stations close to the county line would suffer the most. The tax would also be hard to regulate, since the state doesn’t keep track of fuel after it is pumped into the main tanks of gas stations.

“I’m a little dismayed that the commissioners have determined that they don’t want to bring it before voters yet,” said Kalispell Mayor Pam Kennedy.

Hall said that after taking into account the cost of administering the tax, it might not raise enough money to make it worthwhile.

“If gas prices were lower,” Hall said. “It might be a little bit more cost effective to do.”

The discussion over the gas tax arose after a proposal by Kalispell councilman Bob Hafferman asked the councils and commission to sign onto a letter urging Montana’s federal delegation and governor to once again allow for “sensible” use of national forests in Northwest Montana. Increasing timber harvests, Hafferman said, would bring in revenue that would allow for a more permanent solution to the disrepair of Flathead County’s roads, rather than stopgap measures like the gas tax. Because the gas tax is no longer likely to go forward, much of Hafferman’s letter is now largely moot, Kennedy said, since the letter referred to the gas tax. Many officials present said, gas tax aside, they would support a letter requesting forest managers increase the sustainable yield of timber harvested from forests.

County commissioners first proposed the gas tax in January, due to the imminent loss of federal money to rural counties that once relied on revenue from timber harvests; that money will run out next year. Officials considered lobbying the state legislature to levy a small gas tax, to help counties pay for roadwork, but Brenneman was skeptical that any tax increases would be coming out of Helena any time soon.

“Is there the political will in Helena to do this?” Brenneman said. “I’d be extremely surprised.”

Other issues up for discussion at the meeting included British Petroleum’s proposed coalbed methane exploration in the Canadian Flathead, improving communication between city governments over traffic corridors, a report by the county’s Long Range Planning Task Force, and the completion of several Habitat for Humanity homes in Columbia Falls.

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