Gazette opinion: Billings City Council should put priority on local control

December 1, 2016

Montanans have extremely limited options for building up their cities and counties.

State laws, enacted by the Legislature and governor every two years, control how local government is allowed to raise revenue. Yet it’s the city council members and county commissioners who are responsible for seeing that local needs for public works are met 365 days a year.

Doesn’t it make sense that local voters should decide, not just whether to build a new library or road, but how to pay for it? Under present Montana law, cities and counties have only one tax source they can tap: real estate taxes. Property taxes fund most local government operations, including public schools, sewer, water and fire districts.

Every time Billings voters are asked to pass judgement on a property tax levy, some folks will complain that property owners bear too much of the tax burden. For years, we have heard demands that the costs be spread to others who use local public services and facilities.

Authorize Community Transformation (actmt.org) has formed to promote another option for local voters. On Monday night, at least 17 citizens waited through hours of the Billings City Council meeting to tell their representatives to endorse the ACT ideas for local option funding that would:

Empower local voters to decide if and how a local sales tax would be enacted.Limit any such tax to 3 percent.Require that the ballot specify the project the tax money would fund.Prohibit taxation of groceries and medicine.Prohibit putting local option funds in the general fund.Specify how much of the revenue would be used to reduce property taxes.Limit duration of the tax to 10 years or less.

The ACT initiative has been endorsed by dozens of Billings business people and professionals, including leaders of the Billings Chamber of Commerce. Supporters have visited with leaders in large and small communities across the state and found support both east and west of Billings.

The Dawson County Economic Development Council supports “legislation allowing the residents of Dawson County to individually vote on choosing to implement a local option authority tax.” In a letter, the council’s executive director, Cathy Kirkpatrick notes that “a few of our greatest needs are extension of city water to West Glendive and Makoshika State Park in addition to a community center.”

Local leaders need to act now to support the principle of empowering local people to choose to tax themselves or not and how to tax. Now is the time to encourage legislators to draft and sponsor legislation.

The Billings City Council is scheduled to finalize its legislative priorities at a meeting on Dec. 12. Last Monday night, the council voted to reconsider an earlier decision to exclude local option funding from that list. The citizens who spoke up at that meeting convinced the council to reconsider.

We join them in urging the council to support the idea of local voters deciding whether a limited sales tax is a better way to pay for a local project.

Local option legislation principles will be on the Bozeman City Commission agenda on Dec. 12. Bozeman and Billings leaders should embrace the empowerment of their own voters. Support locally voted tax options.