Missoula City Council candidate Q&A: Gwen Jones, Ward 3
In advance of the 2019 primary and general elections for six Missoula City Council seats, Missoula Current asked each of the 15 candidates a series of questions based on issues facing city leaders in the years ahead. Their answers will be reprinted verbatim.
We continue the series with Ward 3, where three candidates are vying for one seat. The field will be narrowed to two candidates in the Sept. 10 primary election, with the winner chosen in November’s general election. City Council races are non-partisan; each term is for four years.
Ward 3 includes Missoula’s Rose Park, Riverfront and University Area neighborhoods. Gwen Jones is the incumbent councilwoman; she is running for reelection against two challengers, Dakota Hileman and Drew Iverson. Their responses have been published on consecutive days, in alphabetical order.
Gwen Jones, Ward 3
Q: Do you support the use of tax increment financing as a tool for economic development, job growth and expanding the city’s tax base?
A: Yes, I support the use of tax increment financing (TIF) in our community. TIF is a tool created by the Legislature to
reinvest tax increment within the local community. For example, after Southgate Mall opened in the late 1970’s, Missoula’s downtown turned into a ghost town. Many buildings became vacant as most commercial activity abandoned what was once a thriving downtown. Our downtown became Missoula’s first Urban Renewal District to use TIF, and as a result, I believe our downtown is the most energetic and welcoming downtown in Montana – because we had vision and put this tool to use by investing to effect that vision. The actions we took decades ago to revive our downtown are clearly evident today. It continues to evolve as portions of new Urban Renewal Districts touch part of it.
The concept of TIF is for the City to partner with the private sector, with the goal of creating a better project than the developer otherwise would. This benefits our community by creating a larger tax base by increasing the value of the development. As the tax increment grows in an Urban Renewal District, some of it can then be diverted to go towards projects that are for the common good, including parks, sidewalks, affordable housing, and infrastructure that enables affordable housing to be built. We have no other tool to accomplish this and our general fund could never pay for these projects.
Examples of TIF projects for that have enhanced our community include Silver Park, MRL Park, new windows for Hellgate High School, affordable housing projects such as Sweetgrass Commons Housing and Lee Gordon Place…and the list goes on. In order to finance these improvements to our community, TIF is critical. TIF will again prove instrumental to fund new affordable housing projects that could be built in areas like the Payne Family donation of the old Library Block.
There is a narrative in Missoula that TIF is a waste of taxpayer dollars, gives millions to corporations, and is driving up property taxes. While I am sensitive to such concerns, the key is to evaluate each proposed project for TIF funding to assess its ultimate value to the community as a whole. As our Missoula economy changes, we should engage in discussions as to what the priorities are for future TIF spending. If we are in an economic situation where, after numerous years of expansion, we can reprioritize how we spend TIF in Urban Renewal Districts, I look forward to those conversations. The Missoula Redevelopment Agency and TIF have proven successful and we need to recognize what a valuable tool TIF funding can be to improve our city and quality of life.
Q: Do you support the city’s new housing policy, and what would you do to implement the recommendations?
A: I support the policy and voted in favor of it. With regard to implementation, this will take many steps that involve modifying ordinances which regulate different City departments.
For example, in the Office of Development, City Council analyzes re-zoning areas to be in better compliance with our Growth and Housing Policies to create more opportunities for housing. New proposals such as multi-density housing zoning for greenfield development in the Mullan Road area will include single-family homes, as well as townhomes, duplexes, and multi-family apartments. A spectrum of housing inventory is exactly what Missoula needs right now. Additionally, the Adaptive Reuse Zoning proposal would make the rehabilitation of historical buildings more flexible for dense interior rehabilitation and allow for more housing, while still preserving a historic building. Parking requirements will also need to be addressed as we focus on building where alternative transportation can serve residents’ needs.
In the Office of Economic Development and Housing, we will need to look closely at how we can ease the barriers to renting. For those willing to participate, the City can help to streamline the application process, have a central system for credit reports, and facilitate communication to connect renters and landlords, which will help keep costs down and house people sooner.
Our Public Works Department will be closely coordinating with the Office of Housing and Community Development to ensure that when we add to or upgrade infrastructure in Missoula, we are as efficient as possible – which is now possible since we own our water system – and we install and sequence infrastructure that will enable more dense development that works well in neighborhoods and our community.
Finally, I will be looking at how we create more housing stock that adds to, instead of detracts from, neighborhood character. I understand that this will be difficult to do, but if we can incorporate aesthetics into new projects that help add to neighborhood character, new development will be successful.
I hope we can approach the future of housing in Missoula with open minds to change. We can shape our future instead of simply denying that we have an expanding population with a limited footprint within the city limits. Missoula is surrounded by mountains and extensive interior flood plains, so the era of sprawling development is over. Close to 80,000 people live within our city limits; we need to be creative as well as modify our expectations to have a community that houses all income levels.
Q: What would you do to expand the city’s tax base to pay for essential services and the increasing cost of providing those services?
A: Conventional options for expanding the tax base can either be geographic – as in annexation – or by increasing the value of development within the city limits. City Council recently passed a policy to analyze potential areas for annexation. Additional issues to be addressed in any future annexation include whether additional property added to the City’s tax base can cover the cost of additional services needed for the expanded geographic area must be evaluated such as police and fire. Also, infrastructure is a significant component in the equation, including environmental concerns regarding sewer and water connections over septic tanks and wells for the protection of Missoula Valley’s aquifer.
Expanding the tax base by increasing the value of development is another option. That is precisely what the Missoula Redevelopment Agency does through Tax Increment Financing. Eventually when an Urban Renewal District sunsets, all of the additional tax increment created over the years goes to all three local governmental entities.
I do not believe either annexation or increasing property values through more intensive development will solve the issues the City faces of paying for the increasing costs of essential services. Instead, we need to pursue expanding our tax base by finding new sources for our revenue. Tools such as a local option sales tax, to tax items that tourists tend to buy, such as rental cars and hotels would help diversify our tax base. If we can create a tax to target tourist expenditures, it would help greatly to cover the costs of our fire, police, parks and roads – all services which tourists utilize.
Q: Do you believe a series of tweets sent out by President Donald Trump targeting four minority members of Congress this month were racist? Why or why not?
A: I don’t think it is a big secret that Donald Trump is racist as well as sexist. I think the bigger issue is how his behavior and his communications are impacting our culture and our political institutions.
Our government depends on people being able to disagree yet still function within the system. His racism, as well as his sexism, arrogance, and disdain exhibited in his tweets against the four minority congresswomen undermine any functional working relationship among those in power. As a City Councilor, I am highly aware how important relationships are if one wants to accomplish anything in government. To treat people as Trump does is destructive. It degrades our institutions of power, and shreds all of the unspoken rules of human interaction that have enabled our institutions to work in the past, which have made the United States an amazing nation. His behavior also eliminates any credibility he and our country have on the world stage. We face huge challenges with climate change, income disparity, and shifting global power. Our weakened standing due to his behavior gives me great trepidation for the future.
At this point in time, I try to focus on what we can accomplish on a local level in a constructive manner. As with many other City Councilors, understanding the facts and creatively coming up with the best solutions for Missoula are the best way to work.
Q: What would you do to ensure the city continues to meet the wide range of citizen demands while keeping an eye on taxes?
A: I think the City of Missoula has done a good job of identifying vital services and carefully funding necessary items. However, we continue to see many areas which we struggle to sufficiently fund, such as our street maintenance, our fire and police departments, affordable housing for those who cannot afford to live in Missoula or are homeless, animal control, our urban forest, just to name a few. For the four years that I have been on Council, we have attempted to elevate funding in these areas, while still being sensitive to the tax burden.
I now find that most discussions I have with constituents or colleague focus on the lack of funding available to accomplish our goals. This all points to the need for tax reform. As the result of decades of a shifting economy, from natural resources to tourism and technology, our resource-based tax structure is not sustainable. Cuts by the legislature in areas such as business equipment push the tax burden further onto residential property taxes, as these cuts are not replaced by any other source of revenue. As the federal and state government continue to reduce funding for services, it falls to local government to fill that void. An example is the recent cuts to the Department of Health and Human Service – mental health calls have increased, causing additional demand for our police and fire services.
We are doing the best with what we have, but we have not been given the tools by the state legislature to diversify our revenue, stabilize our budget, and take the pressure off of property taxes.
To reiterate, having a diverse tax base would take some pressure off of property taxes. A local option sales tax would effectively target tourist dollars and provide a direct reimbursement on property taxes up to 25%. Small communities in Montana currently have this tool; Missoula should also have the opportunity to decide if this tool would be beneficial to our community. The Montana State Legislature needs to modify the law allowing bigger communities, like Missoula, to decide for themselves what the next step forward is as our economy continues to evolve into a service based economy.
Q: What more can the city do to accommodate non-motorized transportation to achieve the goals in the Long Range Transportation Plan?
A: The City has an excellent Long Range Transportation Plan in place. We also have old infrastructure that was designed for an automobile-oriented society that came of age in the 1950’s and 60’s. We have to be creative to create more walkable and bikeable routes.
Speaking specifically in terms of Ward 3, which is the University District, Rose Park and Riverfront neighborhoods, we need to work on creating more bike lanes. The concept of Neighborhood Greenways works well in other communities and could be applied to Missoula. Greenways are residential streets adjacent to major thoroughfares which provides safe, calm routes for bicyclists. Greenways have specific signage and as a result vehicle driving habits adapt as bicyclists use these side streets as a common route.
One specific goal I have is to create bike lanes on Higgins Avenue on the Hip Strip. With a new and improved Higgins Bridge coming in 2020, we will see even more bike traffic in this area. The Hip Strip funnels traffic into downtown from many bikeable neighborhoods; safe bike lanes are needed in that location. Considering that traffic level counts on Higgins are the same now as they were in 1969, it is safe to project that for the foreseeable future we will not see vehicular traffic rise on the Hip Strip. With a bike friendly Higgins Bridge, we will see bike volumes rise. Thoughtful and detailed engineering design can accommodate both bikes and cars on the Hip Strip.
Sidewalks are critical in encouraging non-motorized transportation. We are in the process of finalizing our Master Pedestrian Plan in Council, which analyzes and prioritizes where sidewalk installation will have the most impact. This includes ADA installations on corners, a crucial component to include all Missoulians in this endeavor. Additionally, the Master Sidewalk Plan has undergone revision for the last 6 months. As construction costs have risen substantially, and the Master Sidewalk Plan is slated for areas with less and less existing sidewalks and curbs, the cost has become prohibitive. This became apparent last spring when projects were to be done in the Slant Street neighborhood. A new and improved Master Sidewalk Plan will cap homeowner’s contributions at a much smaller level.
Finally, I would like to acknowledge that we live in a northern city that has a long winter, have an aging population, and some neighborhoods have no bus service and are far away from destinations. Some people need to drive. We must ensure our transportation system works for all. Every time a Ward 3 resident is able to take a bus, bike or walk somewhere, that creates more room on the road and more parking for those who need to drive. Non-motorized transportation benefits all in our community.
Q: What would be your primary goal as a member of the City Council? How would you fund it?
A: My primary goal as a City Councilor is tax reform. Although city council does not have the authority to change our state laws which dictate how local government revenue is regulated, nonetheless City Councilors can communicate, educate, and advocate for tax reform.
This is such an important issue because we are in an unsustainable situation – our property taxes are overburdened trying to fund local government. Historically, industry financed a larger portion of our local revenue; not only has our natural resources economy receded, but taxes (such as business equipment taxes) geared towards capital intensive industries have been pared back by the legislature. Finally, our growth industries of tourism and technology are not being taxed. Consequently, property owners as well as renters are financing our county, city and local schools at a rate never seen before.
No one likes paying taxes, but people reasonably expect to have a competent, well trained and professional Fire Department and Police Department which respond quickly to an emergency. Maintaining our aging streets and plowing them in the winter costs millions every year. We count on capable city attorney prosecutors and a municipal judicial system to help keep our community safe. When we have limited sources of tax revenue, and must only rely on property taxes for funding, we are stuck between a rock and hard place. This is why I consider tax reform to be a crucial component to the future of Missoula.