A bill aimed at giving unincorporated towns increased control at the local level is being met with little enthusiasm from state lawmakers who say the idea needs to be further vetted.
Flathead County Commissioner Joe Brenneman worked with state employees to draft the bill this past year at the urging of local residents, especially in the Bigfork area. It would allow unincorporated areas to form “villages,” a small representative body within the existing framework and control of county administration.
But Brenneman’s efforts to gain bipartisan support for the bill in Helena have been largely unsuccessful.
“I’d like to have representatives from both parties sponsor it, because I’d like it to sink or swim on its own merits rather than become a partisan issue,” Brenneman said. “For the most part, though, the response from legislators has been very much indifference.”
The village concept, Brenneman said, is meant to provide a viable middle ground for communities where incorporating isn’t feasible because of cost or state law. Brenneman’s district includes Flathead County’s two largest unincorporated populations – Bigfork and Evergreen.
Elected village boards would act as a liaison to the county commission, making recommendations on regulations and needed services. They would also have some regulatory control over land-use decisions. For example, a subdivision application would have to pass muster with the village board before it could advance to the county planning board and commission.
Commissioners could levy a tax not to exceed one mill to cover the administrative costs of beginning a village government. Any village-specific taxes after that would be put to a public vote.
“Incorporating would increase taxes here by about 25 percent,” John Bourquin, a member of the Bigfork Land Use Advisory Committee, said. “This would give us some added control over our own destiny, without that tax burden.”
Several local legislators are skeptical of those claims, though, saying they think the village bill might increase local taxes in the long run and add an unnecessary layer of control.
“We need to question if we’re just building more government here,” Rep. Jon Sonju, R-Kalispell, said.
Rep. Scott Reichner, R-Bigfork, said he would sponsor a study resolution for the bill, sending it to a committee of lawmakers who could review and tweak the proposal before taking it up again in 2011. Sonju, Rep. Keith Regier, R-Kalispell, and Rep. Mark Blasdel, R-Somers, all support the idea.
“By and large everyone has been pretty cold to the bill,” Reichner said. “I think with anything new sometimes it takes some time for people to understand – to know the intricacies of the bill and concept.”
“The committee lets both sides study the pros and cons,” he added.
Brenneman, though, said local residents continue to say they would like to have the bill heard this session. Rep. Mike Jopek, D-Whitefish, has agreed to carry the bill, he added, but likely won’t lobby hard for it.
With troubles this early on, and little backing from local lawmakers, the bill’s hopes of garnering enough support from representatives statewide to pass through the House and Senate seem slim.
“If this is going to succeed it would need a groundswell of support,” Brenneman said.
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