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Council crowdsources tax relief with 'Betty's Fund'

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In 2011, Missoula City Councilman Jon Wilkins noticed that a neighbor's house on Park Street was up for sale. But the resident, an elderly piano teacher named Betty Museus, hadn't meant to sell it. Wilkins' family got to know Museus after noticing that she often stared out her window, looking lonely. Wilkins sometimes came over and mowed her lawn, and she would come outside and offer him 25 cents.

"Her husband died, and she wasn't really mentally capable of handling her house and her affairs," Wilkins explains now. "And she got behind on her taxes."

Virginia-based Mooring Tax Asset Group paid the property's $5,822 in tax debt and took legal possession of Museus' home through the "tax-deed process," as the Independent reported at the time. Museus was evicted and eventually moved to an assisted living home where she still resides, as far as Wilkins knows. He and City Attorney Jim Nugent sought to make sure she at least got some proceeds from the sale of her home, and he thinks she did eventually get a check for about $34,000.

Museus was all but forgotten until mid-December, when Wilkins proposed that an unusual new property tax relief program be dubbed "Betty's Fund" in her honor. Councilwoman Julie Armstrong first pitched the tax relief idea to council in August, saying that she'd like to offer assistance to low-income citizens through a program funded by donations from other citizens. Donations would be accepted through the city's website, and applicants for the help would have to prove themselves qualified for the state's property tax assistance program. By the city's current calculations, Betty's Fund could offer recipients about $100-$200 each, assuming it receives enough donations.

Wilkins acknowledges that Museus herself probably didn't realize she could have applied for a tax relief program. "But I think it would help other people," Wilkins says. "And the main thing, along with that, is it would tell people there's other types of tax relief and help get them into those other programs."

Council approved Betty's Fund on Dec. 12, and the program will begin accepting donations in January. The city's resolution includes no guarantee that the fund will be able to assist anyone with anything. As with Wilkins' outreach to Museus, the program's success will depend entirely on the generosity of neighbors.

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The original print version of this article was headlined "Etc."

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