City Councilwoman Lyn Hellegaard was unable to quash the city's new special tax districts, which impose assessments for parks and streets, when the governing body debated the issue last year, so Hellegaard took a different tact: helping to draft a state law to severely narrow how special districts can be created, and what they can be used for.
"I think we need clarification," says Hellegaard, who believes citizens and lawmakers are "very confused" about the distinctions between maintenance districts, special improvement districts and special districts.
Hellegaard hopes House Bill 304, sponsored by Gordon Hendrick, R-Superior, will clear up the confusion. But it does much more than that, to the dismay of city officials who see special districts as crucial revenue streams in a time of municipal belt-tightening.
"The most significant change is [the bill] removes the ability of city councils to initiate the consideration of this type of district," says Bruce Bender, Missoula's chief administrative officer.
The bill also drops the percentage of residents required to protest the creation of a special district from 50 to 15 percent. And it says district funds "may not be used to maintain facilities existing prior to creation of the special district."
"Well, that was our main reason for creating these districts—to give us a funding source to maintain facilities, maintain the streets and maintain the parks," Bender says. "So that [provision] really narrows its use."
In an interview with the Independent Hellegaard didn't elaborate on why she disapproves of special districts, but Councilman Bob Jaffe thinks it's because she and her conservative cohorts consider it a deceptive way to balance the budget.
"Of course it's an effort to balance the budget," Jaffe says. "What's the issue there?"
But more than anything, it irks Jaffe that Hellegaard would "go over our heads." He expects the bill to pass, especially if Republican legislators see it as an opportunity to "screw" Missoula, the state's bastion of liberalism.
Says Jaffe: "For a couple Republicans to go write the language and find a bunch of other Republicans to pass their bill to show Missoula its place, it seems like that would be a pretty easy one—a lot easier than getting a protest here, or actually winning elections here."