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Nationwide there seems to be a complete disconnect between the reality we citizens face every day and the things our politicians are saying and doing.  In the face of devastating unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, corporations run amuck, a disastrous health care system, disastrous higher education costs, and environmental disasters all around all we hear from our leaders is cut, cut, cut spending; cut, cut, cut regulations; cut, cut, cut taxes; and drill baby drill.  That's the big picture.  Follow along for my local example of this complete disconnect.

I'm an advocate for pedestrian infrastructure improvements in my city.  I serve on a committee of volunteers that advises our city commision on issues regarding non-motorized transportation.  I believe that transportation is fundamental to so many other challenges our community faces including high rates of drunk driving, air pollution, obesity, personal economics, and city budget problems.  Our small city is only three miles across making it pretty easy to walk or bike nearly everywhere you need to go.  Unfortunately suburbanization and car-culture dominate the city and pedestrian infrastructure is largely deficient.

Our group has recently been working on a recommendation for the city on how to go about improving sidewalk infrastructure with an aim toward ADA compliance.  The city was recently sued successfully by a woman who fell out of her wheelchair at a non-compliant street crossing.  This was not the first instance of a disabled citizen having a serious problem getting around town.  If improvements aren't made it surely won't be the last and the city can expect more lawsuits.  

What became most clear to us during our review was the massive scope of the problem.  There is easily 5 to 10 million dollars worth of improvements that need to be done.  As in many cities, our sidewalks are paid for by the adjacent property owner.  The city has a pool of money they use to provide interest free loans to the property owners making the improvements which the property owner pays back through their property taxes.  This pool of money is a meagre $100,000 annually.  It may be possible to increase that pool to some degree, perhaps even doubling it.  But even that increase is far short of what's needed and it ignores the problem that it's up to property owners to volunteer to make sidewalk improvements or the city must order property owners to make those improvements.  How do you tell a struggling home owner that you're going jack up their property tax bill to pay for a sidewalk they don't want?  The city manager doesn't want to be the bad guy so our group is working on a method to prioritize improvements and develop criteria to justify the ordering in of sidewalks.  It's a bad system.  It angers property owners and doesn't begin to solve the problem of grossly deficient sidewalk infrastructure.

A better funding mechanism for improvements would be to create a special improvement tax district in the city.  All property owners would share the cost of improvements.  With roughly 25,000 property owners we could raise $10,000,000 dollars at an average cost of $400 to each property owner.  That amount wouldn't need to be raised in a single year though.  A 10 year time frame would be more realistic. Of course the complaint is that this system would be unfair to the property owners who already paid for improvements to their sidewalks.  My response to that is: Grow up, life's not fair.

Now to my point.  On the issue of sidewalk improvements and so many other challenges our city faces the problem we run into is the city just doesn't have the money to deal with them.  We've struggled to balance the budget every year through wage freezes, hiring freezes, cuts, and by delaying important projects.  Where the great disconnect lies is that the state of Montana has a near $500 million dollar budget surplus.  Our Democrat governor's plan for this surplus is to give every property tax payer a one-time, $400 refund.  A similar refund was paid a few years ago as well.

Sure, those property tax refunds will help the local economy and some struggling citizens out somewhat.  But for me, and I'm sure many other well-off property owners, I'll just use the refund to pay down debt or simply save it which doesn't do anything for the local economy.  And it completely ignores the fact that our city, and I'm sure many others, are millions of dollars behind on infrastructure projects.  Wouldn't that surplus be better spent paying local contractors to build sidewalks so the city doesn't get sued into oblivion?  There are hundreds of projects the city should be doing that would put people to work, put money directly into the local economy and make the city a better place to live.

But of course you won't hear much talk of these ideas up at the GOP-controlled legislature.  Up there we can't afford to pay our teachers and public employees a decent wage.  We can't afford to fix our infrastructure.  We can't fix public employee pensions that got hammered when the markets crashed.  We can't invest in quality of life improvements in our cities.  But for some reason we can afford to give every property tax payer $400 that they probably don't need!?  It's ludicrous.  It's completely disconnected from the challenging reality we face in our cities every day.

Originally posted to Helena Pedestrian on Wed Mar 06, 2013 at 12:04 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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