Parks and Trails, Gallagator Trail

People stroll and jog along the Gallagator Trail on a warm Wednesday afternoon in Bozeman.

Bozeman-area voters could face competing property tax requests on next May’s ballot, for both schools and city parks and trails.

Bozeman School Board trustees and city commission members met this week to discuss ways they can increase cooperation. The two elected bodies gave each other a heads up that they may both be going to voters with tax requests on the same ballot.

The school district expects to ask voters next May for millions of dollars in a “transition levy,” to help cover the additional costs of opening the community’s second high school.

“For sure we’re going to have the transition levy,” said Andy Willett, School Board chair. “It will be a net zero for taxpayers.”

School budget managers have talked about asking for $6 million spread over several years to cover the extra costs of operating the second high school, expected to be at least $1 million a year.

Willett said the school district would give back an equal amount of property tax money through the building fund, so there would be no net tax increase for home and business owners.

The budget for constructing the new school and renovating Bozeman High has a balance today of nearly $10 million, and some part of that is expected to be left unused when construction is completed.

Legally the schools can’t simply transfer money passed by voters for school construction into the general fund that pays for teacher salaries, utilities and other operating costs.

Willett said the schools would likely also ask voters in May for an operating fund tax increase, something the high school district didn’t seek this year.

And there’s a chance the school district might also ask voters next May for millions of dollars to build Bozeman’s ninth elementary school, Willett said. Trustees haven’t yet discussed the timing for a new school.

Meanwhile, Bozeman city commissioners are considering placing on the May ballot a request to voters to create a new tax district to pay for parks and trails. Chris Mehl, deputy mayor, said city parks have a $7 million maintenance backlog.

The city’s choices are to put the issue on the May school ballot, which would cost about $50,000, or run a special winter election, which could cost twice as much. A state law prevents putting the parks issue on the November ballot, city officials said.

School Trustee Douglas Fischer said it seems a “no brainer” that the school district should support the park and trails measure, because trails help kids walk or ride bikes to school safely.

“The problem is, we’re all going after the same very restricted pot of money … property taxes,” Fischer said. “At some point taxpayers are really going to revolt.”

Mehl thanked school trustees for supporting the failed effort to persuade the state Legislature to allow local option sales taxes, as an alternative to raising property taxes.

School and city leaders agreed they’d like to cooperate on opening new Gallatin High School’s library to the public as a west-side satellite of the Bozeman Public Library. It would be open after school and on weekends, to benefit students, young children and adults, they said.

Commissioner Jeff Krauss thanked school officials for installing a traffic roundabout on 15th Avenue at Ruth Thibeault Drive, which cost about $1 million and fixed a dysfunctional intersection behind Bozeman High.

But the two sides also acknowledged friction, especially when schools get exemptions from city zoning rules.

By state law, the city must hold public hearings on the exemptions, but city commissioners have no power to tell the schools what to do. The last hearing was “rough,” Mayor Cyndy Andrus said.

Willett said it was frustrating and embarrassing to get “punched in the face” by commissioners, when the two boards should both have the public’s trust. He also chafed at commissioners’ questioning why the new high school sports stadium needed a video scoreboard.

School Trustee Gary Lusin suggested holding consensus-style meetings so the two sides could understand each other better.

Both boards hold their public meetings on Monday nights, and Mehl argued the school board should change to another night so the public can attend both.

“Why is your time more important than ours?” Willett asked pointedly. “We’re not changing. Sorry.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

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