Municipal Matters

I’d suggest turning your attention to local policy debates

By Kellyn Brown

At the federal level, Congress and the president can’t agree on what to do about Obamacare subsidies. Since they can’t find a solution, the insurance exchange may begin to implode.

At the state level, neither Republicans nor Democrats want to be blamed for implementing deep budget cuts triggered by a revenue shortfall. So instead of coming up a plan, the cuts may hurt worse than they have to.

It’s easy to feel disengaged from either debate underway in Washington and Helena. It’s frustrating. But if federal- and state-level politics are getting you down, I’d suggest turning your attention to local policy debates where citizens are more engaged on more issues than any time in recent memory.

From Columbia Falls to Bigfork, locals are debating the fates of their schools, jails and roads. And whatever side of the issues you fall on, the level of discussion on everything from a proposed water-bottling plant to new schools is encouraging for a fast-growing community that wants a say in its future.

The old axiom, “all politics are local,” isn’t exactly true in that far-away debates over federally funded health care and state budget cuts will potentially affect scores of Flathead residents. But the local discussions over policies and potential projects provide a chance for your voice to be a little louder.

In Columbia Falls, a city that is undergoing a revitalization effort, residents there ardently opposed a new jail, arguing it would hamper economic development. The county scrapped the plans.

Over the last year in Kalispell and Whitefish, the communities organized and put forward bonds to remodel and build new schools. Despite the price tags, which weren’t small, voters overwhelmingly approved both. In each instance, the school districts clearly made their cases and invited public input every step of the way. Meanwhile, Bigfork High School is wrapping up its $14 million renovation, and school bonds are proposed in both Eureka and Somers.

A proposed water-bottling plant in Creston has drawn so much interest and opposition that last month a hearing before the Montana Department of Natural Resources was held at Flathead Valley Community College to accommodate the public interest.

Perhaps the most heated municipal debate in Kalispell is over the number of traffic lanes in downtown. City officials have endorsed a plan to reduce four traffic lanes to two lanes with a center turn lane in an effort to reduce congestion and improve walkability. However, both the Flathead County Commission and Montana Department of Transportation oppose the move and say reducing lanes could cause gridlock and push traffic to nearby streets.

 Meanwhile, after years of discussion, accusations and lawsuits, the county commission is scheduled to make a decision on the citizen-initiated South Whitefish Overlay, part of the-so-called donut area just outside city limits. Whitefish still opposes the county zone changes.

Regardless of where you stand on current issues under debate across our communities, what’s encouraging is the level of engagement in Northwest Montana, where decisions under consideration will have a long-lasting impact on this place we call home.

What’s worse than disagreements over policies that affect our communities is not having any discussion at all because the community is disengaged or doesn’t care. Politics may not all be local, but locals have an outsized impact on local politics if they make their voices heard.

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