The Flathead County Commission just approved the purchase of almost 40 acres of agricultural land in Lower Valley. The price tag was $1.5 million – three times what the county had planned to pay for this type of property. The county, through its “economic development arm” FCEDA, is also getting back over 60,000 square feet of Gateway West Mall because Teletech will not renew its lease on the property. That site would have been an excellent place for all of the county offices currently housed at the old Centurylink building that the county invested over $5 million to rehab and purchase. Now, the county is moving the Justice Court into the “old” building that housed the county offices that moved to the Centurylink building. That move comes with a high-priced and fancy remodel, as will the “old” Justice Court, as it will now house the fifth District Court judge.
No question, we need to do something with septage in our county. Paying $1.5 million in an inflationary market for 40 acres of agriculture land doesn’t strike this taxpayer as a great bargain. However, the property lies adjacent to Somers’ Water and Sewer District property, which may lend itself to combining all county waste with the various water and sewer districts’ waste in one location. Evergreen would benefit tremendously by having a new place to send its sewage as the City of Kalispell has thus far refused Evergreen’s request to modify its district boundaries to allow Evergreen to use the capacity reserved for it (and paid for by Evergreen residents). Evergreen’s growth, without modification of its district boundaries, is stifled at best; at worst, more septic systems are proliferating in Evergreen, which is a terrible way to manage what is primarily municipal septage. So, with all of the Biden Bucks available for infrastructure, a full sewage treatment facility should be considered for all of the non-municipal sewage in Flathead County. With Evergreen as the single largest rate payer for Kalispell’s sewage treatment plant, ongoing operational costs may be covered with just Evergreen’s inclusion.
To secure additional funding for the project, the county should sell the Vo-Ag educational center to School District 5. SD 5 has leased the property for years from the county, has invested millions in its infrastructure, and has already investigated an environmental easement to be placed on the property, which would secure its existence in perpetuity for all Flathead County kids. As the county is now flush with excess properties, selling this piece would be a win for all Flathead County residents. Then, instead of trying to find a new jail site, the county should repurpose the Gateway West property into a jail and sheriff’s office. That building is a construction albatross, but its location is amenable to a county jail. When government gets into the business of property acquisition, taxpayers lose. Ditching excess property and repurposing what we currently own should be the top priority in the new year.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney, former mayor of Kalispell and host of the Montana Values Podcast.
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