Open Spaces

A wild rose bush grows on a plot of windswept land near Belgrade. The property owners worked with Gallatin Valley Land Trust to place a conservation easement on this portion of their land, protecting it from ever being broken up or developed.

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Open space supporters want to see a vote this June on a mill levy to raise $20 million over the next 15 years for preserving open lands in Gallatin County.

Supporters of the idea plan to present the Gallatin County Commission with a letter Tuesday that asks the commission to put funding for the Gallatin County Open Lands program on this spring’s primary election ballot. The program has paid for conservation easements all over the valley. Funding for the program ran out last year.

Land trust groups have been working to restore funding for the program and helped organize the letter, which requests that the county ask voters to approve a mill levy that would raise about $20 million over 15 years.

“We believe the levy is the best option to get the funding that we need to make this happen,” said EJ Porth, a spokeswoman for the Gallatin Valley Land Trust. “It’s about continuing this work that keeps our valley beautiful.”

No final decisions will be made Tuesday, and no formal proposal is yet on the table. But the commission is scheduled to discuss potential levy options for the June election in a work session after its regular meeting, including options to raise money for parks and trails and the fairgrounds. A decision on what will be on the June ballot needs to come before March 6.

The county’s open lands program began with two voter-approved $10 million bonds in the early 2000s. That money funded conservation easements around the county, but the money ran out last year.

Land trust representatives pushed for putting a bond on the November ballot but the commission decided against it. The groups — GVLT, the Montana Land Reliance and Trust for Public Land — later began a petition to put a $20 million bond on this November’s ballot.

That option still remains, but the letter supporters will present Tuesday calls for a mill levy on the June ballot, which they see as an easier path forward. Bonds require a certain level of voter turnout for passage — mill levies don’t, making them a safer bet in an off-year primary election.

Each of the three county commissioners said they prefer a mill levy to a bond because of the way levies work. A bond is for a fixed amount, while a levy is for a certain number of mills — a complex property tax calculation that fluctuates somewhat from year to year. If the value of a mill increases more than expected during the term of the levy, more money would flow into the open space account.

However, unlike a bond, the full amount the county wants to raise won’t be available immediately — it will arrive in increments as people pay their property taxes and would be projected to add up to a certain amount at the end of the levy.

Still, each of the three county commissioners said they preferred the levy option. Commissioners Steve White and Don Seifert both said that bonds require the county to pay interest while levies don’t. Commissioner Joe Skinner added that the increase in mill value would also be a boon to the county.

“It looks like the mill levy will cost voters less in the long run and actually deliver more,” Skinner said.

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Michael Wright can be reached at or at 582-2638. Follow him on Twitter @mj_wright1.

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