Officials from the Montana state legislature, the Great Falls City Commission and the Cascade County Commission got together on Tuesday to put forth issues that the city and county want the legislature to consider during its next session.
At the Joint City / County Commission and Local / Regional Legislators Special Work Session, commissioners and other stakeholders discussed issues such as housing, community development, workforce, Malmstrom Air Force Base, taxes and more. legislation ahead of the session so that legislators can address the most prevalent concerns.
Ten attended to represent the legislature, five of whom were prospective legislators. The event was spearheaded by Rep. Steve Galloway and City Commissioner Joe McKenney.
“We have a housing crisis at this point,” opened Jolene Schalper, Senior Vice President of the Great Falls Development Authority.
Schalper’s concerns included zoning flexibility, attraction of new developers, Tax Increment Financing (TIF) and tax abatement. She said more accessory dwelling units (ADUs) would take some pressure off the city that comes with adding infrastructure to developments on the outskirts. An ADU is a secondary house or apartment on the same lot as a larger, primary home.
Schalper encouraged the legislature to look at what other successful cities are doing well and keep zoning regulations flexible enough to accommodate housing needs.
TIF and tax abatement, Schalper said, are vital to her work, especially since Montana does not have a sales tax to draw from. She used the Holiday Village Mall as an example. Schalper said in states with a sales tax, the retailer would get She said the lack of those funds is why the mall does not perform large-scale improvements.
Sales tax funds in other states also pay for infrastructure, Schalper said, and forcing developers to take on that infrastructure cost causes them to pass Great Falls by.
Sherrie Arey of NeighborWorks Great Falls echoed Schalper’s concerns. She added that ADUs improve property values while providing housing for first-time renters and seniors looking to downsize. She also said having more housing will drive the cost of housing down. She said now’s the time. to incentivize the creation of more housing through the state low-income tax credit, a bipartisan effort that passed in the legislature two years ago but was vetoed by the governor.
City Manager Greg Doyon spoke against Constitutional Initiative 121, which would greatly change property taxing in Montana. He said there are other ways to address property tax issues.
Doyon continued to address the housing issue, as well, applauding West Bank Landing as a TIF success story.
Legalized marijuana, Doyon said, should be taxed to the greatest extent possible, “In part because you’ll never recoup the negative impact of marijuana usage on a community, even with the little bit that you’re going to get, so I wouldn ‘t give them a pass… ”
Doyon was the first to bring up Malmstrom Air Force Base and the Montana Air National Guard, but it was a subject that loomed large during the meeting.
“Montana is way behind in how it advocates for its military,” Doyon said, adding that this is more than just a Great Falls problem. He said other states are dumping millions into attracting and retaining missions, and he said Great Falls is behind the eight ball in its advocacy.
Rep. Scot Kerns took up the subject, as well, saying that the city needs preparedness in addition to advocacy. He said we need an all-hands approach to preparing for the influx of people and money as the Sentinel missile system comes online.
Municipal Court Judge Greg Bolstad invited legislators to reach out to him about bills that impact the court system to discuss possible unintended consequences. He said legislation sometimes puts a strain on the court’s resources and on law enforcement that legislators may not see if they don’t talk to those the bill will affect.
County Commissioner Joe Briggs took the lead in telling the legislators about county priorities in the areas of local government revenue, property assessments, broadband deployment and the Department of Revenue.
Briggs said the county commission has been operating for the last 20 years under a Constitutional initiative that caps the amount they can raise taxes based on the rate of inflation. With low inflation and pretty good growth over the last few years, Briggs said it hasn’ Now, though, high inflation is causing problems, especially in smaller counties that have not been doing as well in economic development.
Entitlement share, Briggs said, provides the county a share of revenues that the counties don’t normally get a piece of and helps make up for the county’s overwhelming reliance on property tax. Briggs’ number one ask of the legislature was to stop raiding that entitlement share at the end of the session.
Briggs then moved on to property assessments, saying that the influx of out-of-state money is driving up valuations because of how we appraise properties using comparables.
“So, if you haven’t done anything to your home, but down the street somebody from out of state buys a house for 50 or 60 percent above market value, that changes your pricing,” Briggs said, adding that other counties have faced long-term residents being driven out of their homes because they can no longer afford the property taxes.
Briggs’ next issue was broadband deployment, and he said, “We are not only lagging, we’re actually listed as the worst state as far as deployment by the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration).”
Topography and population come into play, but he said the real barrier is that counties legally cannot be involved in the deployment of infrastructure for broadband. That means the counties are missing out on federal dollars to help deploy broadband.
Finally, Briggs talked about the commission setting its budget and tax levies and relying on the Department of Revenue (DOR) to give them their certified values. He said the commission completed the process only to find out that the state DOR had been privately negotiating with Calumet over the valuation of its property without the knowledge of the local DOR.
“DOR is doing these things behind closed doors with no notice to anybody,” Briggs said.
He asked that the informal process be made more visible and more reliable for the city and county.
As the work session drew to a close, City Commissioner Susan Wolff asked that the legislature keep looking at the subjects of workforce challenges in Great Falls, education, the Air Force, preschools and community substance abuse treatment.
Tryon closed by saying that he’d like those present to be able to create a plan to continue communicating and working toward proposing bills that address the issues talked about during the meeting.
Another work session is planned for September.