Bozeman City Hall

A look at Bozeman City Hall on Rouse Avenue.

Bozeman commissioners will vote on a citywide parks and trails tax after a state law stopped the decision from going to voters in a general election. If approved, property owners would have the opportunity to protest the tax.

The commission sided with the backup plan to collect more money through a Parks & Trails Special District with a 3-2 vote Monday. The vote means the city will eventually announce to property owners it wants to create a district and give them time to protest.

“It’s not optimum to do it in this way in my mind, but doing a protest vote is efficient,” Mayor Cyndy Andrus said.

With the plan to create the district expected to unfold over months, Andrus added it will give the city time to describe their intention to residents.

Commissioners have said the city’s current system to pay for its parks and trails hasn’t kept up. Bozeman has a maintenance backlog the city estimates would cost nearly $7 million to hit national standards.

Commissioners initially opted in March to take the issue to the November election. At the time, Andrus said an election was the most “transparent” way to collect the money.

“I definitely believe that the voters of this community should be the ones to decide this at the polls,” Andrus said during the March 4 meeting.

City attorneys found a 2015 state law that stagnated that plan, which mandates tax districts can’t come through general elections.

Andrus said Monday during that March meeting, commissioners didn’t know about that legislative change. She said the 2015 law left the city with “decisions that aren’t great.”

Commissioners had three main choices Monday: a commission vote for the tax district with a right to protest, wait until the next school district election in 2020, or hold a special election.

Monday’s vote rode on the arguments that a district with a protest period gives the city a chance to get something set up this year — meaning the city doesn’t have to write up several draft budgets.

Commissioners also said hosting an election is expensive. It would cost the city roughly $50,000 to join a school election and upwards of $100,000 to host a special election.

Parks and Recreation Director Mitch Overton said a district through a protest is the cheapest option with an estimated $10,000 cost. He said a con is protests take a lot of staff time to process. It also doesn’t include all voters voices — meaning Bozeman renters.

The commission’s next step — expected sometime in the fall — would be a vote announcing the city’s intent to create the district. Bozeman property owners would then have a 60-day window to protest. If owners who represent 10% of the district’s costs push against it, it would fail.

The district would have to go before the commission again for a hearing and a final vote.

Commissioners I-Ho Pomeroy and Jeff Krauss voted against the plan.

Krauss said he believes the public protest system leaves people open to retaliation because their protests are public information.

So far, the city has planned on rolling a parks and trails district out over five years. City staff have estimated property owners with an average lot —7,500 square feet — would pay $135 within the program’s first year and $184 by its fifth.

Bozeman annually collects roughly $78 from someone with a median home for parks and trails upkeep, which rolls into the city’s general fund. City commissioners have said the district would replace that tax.

The city last created a similar district in 2015 when commissioners approved to raise taxes across town for Bozeman’s street network. City staff first mentioned the idea of a district to pay for its places to play and walk in 1996.

If property owners reject a commission vote to make a district, the city can then turn back toward another chance with a special election or join the school district elections in May.

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought.

Katheryn Houghton is the city government and health reporter for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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