Bonds: Voters Asked to Back 911, Conservation, Parks Tax

By Beacon Staff

With the national economic downturn and strapped local budgets, bond advocates understand that this is a less than auspicious time to ask taxpayers for money to fund special projects.

“Going to the public right now for money is like going to an ex-wife and asking for a date – it’s not a good circumstance,” Mark Peck, the county’s 911 project coordinator, recently joked of the county 911-center bond.

But the backers of these measures make the case that to support these projects is to look beyond the current market turmoil, and to invest in the long-term future of the Flathead. Parks, open space and prompt emergency response are key components in the valley’s continued prosperity, they say, and worth paying for. Whether voters agree won’t be apparent until Nov. 4.

City-County 911 Center Bond

The Flathead City-County 911 Administrative Board is taking a bond issue of up to $6.9 million to voters on Nov. 4 to merge the county’s four emergency dispatch centers into a new building in northwest Kalispell.

The 11,800-square-foot building is the lynchpin in a total overhaul of the area’s emergency service system, board members say. “This is the most significant public safety issue in Flathead County in this generation,” Peck said.

The board already has more than $5 million in state and federal funding to overhaul the entire communication system to new state-of-the-art dispatch equipment, including radios and towers. Voters are being asked to cover the costs for the building, which would handle current and future 911 needs, act as the new emergency operations headquarters for the entire county and bring all emergency personnel and equipment under one roof.

The construction price tag is purposely a high estimate, Peck said. The board chose the most expensive scenario to account for fluctuations in material costs and to ensure they wouldn’t come up short. “I can confidently say we’ll come in under the $6.9 million figure,” Peck said.

If passed, the bond issue would mean a $12.48 annual increase in property taxes on a house with a tax-assessed value of $200,000. Construction on the building would begin next spring and likely would take 10 to 12 months.

If the bond fails, the updated equipment for a consolidated dispatch center would be crammed into the basement of the Flathead County Justice Center in Kalispell.

Currently, Flathead County’s 911 center is operated by the Sheriff’s Office and handles law-enforcement calls for unincorporated Flathead County, plus all fire and ambulance calls in the cities and rural areas. Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls each have dispatch centers for their own police departments.

The separate centers means callers are transferred and have to repeat their information, wasting time in an emergency and increasing the likelihood of confusion and dropped calls, Peck said. The current dispatch equipment also is outdated, which is exacerbated by surging call numbers: The four centers combined are handling more than 100,000 events per year.

Conservation Bond

Flathead County voters are being asked to approve a $10-million bond to acquire and preserve open space.

If approved, the county could use the money to purchase voluntary conservation easements in which the land is left in private ownership, as well as purchase waterfront access and parklands. The county would draw up more detailed guidelines and work with a citizen advisory group to prioritize how to spend the money.

The official bond language says purchases could be made for any one or more of the following reasons: “protecting clean water in streams, rivers and lakes; preserving traditional recreational access; conserving working farm, forest and ranch lands; expanding or establishing rural parks or recreational areas; and conserving habitat for wildlife.”

The estimated annual tax increase, according to county figures, would be $9.15 for a home with an assessed tax value of $100,000, or $19 for a home with an assessed value of $215,000.

Local community groups have discussed publicly funded conservation easements for years, but county commissioners refused to put similar bond requests to the ballot in 2003 and 2004.

“I think the time is right now, though, and I think there’s a sense among the community that we don’t have a lot of time to not do this,” Marilyn Wood, director of the Flathead Land Trust, the group that requested the bond, said. “Part of it is that people have really been affected by these huge developments and the fast rate of growth, and they’re concerned that we’re losing land rapidly.”

Other high-growth Montana counties, including Gallatin, Ravalli and Missoula, have approved similar conservation programs.

Kalispell Parks District Bond

This referendum asks Kalispell residents to weigh in on whether Kalispell should set up a parks operations-and-maintenance tax. It is an advisory question; the Kalispell City Council is tentatively scheduled to discuss the results on Nov. 17 to decide if the city will implement the tax and, if so, what formula to use.

The formula before Kalispell’s voters sets the tax as a dollar amount reached by multiplying the square footage of a lot by 0.0055. For example, a 7,000-square-foot lot would pay about $38.50 annually; a 4,000-square-foot lot $22 in that time.

The goal of the parks maintenance district, the council says, is to remove park expenses from the general fund, opening up monies for other departments. This fall, the council struggled to balance the budget, finally making some job cuts, primarily in the city’s parks and recreation department.

Two full-time staff members were laid off there and about 18 seasonal employees won’t be hired. The department has eliminated 24 of its recreational programs, about half of what it offers, including: senior citizen hiking trips, crafts for young children, a canine Frisbee program, photography classes and bird watching trips. Remaining high-participation programs will see cutbacks in the number of kids they can accommodate.

By funding the parks department with a maintenance district, the city could secure funding for the department, while redirecting the approximately $600,000 it uses from the general fund to other needs.

With a parks maintenance district, the council can revisit the tax and the tax rates annually to see if any changes are needed.

Earlier this year, the council sent out letters to Kalispell residents about the parks district, saying they wouldn’t implement one if 50 percent of the property owners in the city replied in protest of its creation. Opponents criticized the process, and the council decided to put the question on the ballot in order to generate broader feedback.