There are only two seasons in Montana: winter and construction. Fortunately, we have had some projects in the Flathead that were able to move forward during winter this year, including the rail park project in the old Watson gravel pit off Whitefish Stage Road. The rail park project is part and parcel of the city of Kalispell’s plan to rejuvenate its rail corridor downtown. In order for the city’s downtown project to occur, businesses that use rail needed to move to the rail park, clearing the way for the train tracks to be removed for redevelopment. The Flathead County Economic Development Authority (FCEDA) and Montana West Economic Development have spearheaded the rail park project, and with the help of federal grants supporting the project, the end is in sight.
FCEDA is funded by taxpayer dollars. The county commissioners dedicate around $500,000 a year to FCEDA to invest in economic development planning and management. When it became apparent that to complete the rail park an additional investment was necessary, FCEDA approached the county commissioners requesting a bond issuance for the roughly $8 million. Our taxes are high enough; under the bond scenario, if lease payments from the rail park were insufficient to pay the annual bond payment, our taxes would increase to cover the shortage. We needed an alternative to another bond.
The interim expansion to the current county jail alleviated the need to build a new jail for the next 10 to 15 years. The commissioners have been saving for a new jail, and have built up the new jail fund substantially over the past five years. This is how capital improvement planning should be performed by government: saving and planning for the future instead of constant bonding when crisis hits. Instead of burdening the taxpayers, Commissioners Gary Krueger and Phil Mitchell agreed to loan FCEDA the necessary funds from the jail savings account with interest. The county will continue to save for the jail, and the loan funds plus the interest will be deposited to the jail fund. Under this scenario, the rail park will be completed, allowing for rail-dependent business development and redevelopment in the city of Kalispell, and the county will have ample funds for the new jail when it is needed 10 to 15 years from now. Most importantly, the taxpayers are not further burdened. If the lease payments are not sufficient to make the loan payments, the deficiency will be taken from the FCEDA annual budget allocation – not new tax dollars.
Perhaps embarking on a path of redemption, Commissioner Mitchell voted appropriately. Notwithstanding my continued call for his resignation, he and Commissioner Krueger deserve our thanks for their fiscally conservative leadership in supporting completion of the rail park project all the while conserving tax dollars through innovative financing.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.
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