Missoula City Council candidate Q&A: Mirtha Becerra, Ward 2
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 2, where two candidates are vying for one seat. The winner will be determined in the Nov. 5 general election. City Council races are non-partisan; each term is for four years.
Ward 2 includes Missoula’s Westside, Grant Creek, Mullan Road area and Pleasant View neighborhoods. Mirtha Becerra is the incumbent and is seeking reelection. Her challenger is Brent Sperry.
Sperry did not respond to the Missoula Current’s questionnaire, despite two emails and a phone message. If he should respond in the future, his answers will be published.
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. TIF has been used to fund almost every park in the city, many miles of trails, pedestrian bridges, affordable housing projects, sewer connections and sidewalks in low-income neighborhoods. In addition, nonprofit organizations such as the Clark Fork Coalition, the YWCA, and Homeword have received TIF. Missoula is better, safer and more vibrant because we have this investment tool at our disposal. The tax increment generated by the more obvious and private investments (e.g., hotels, banks) allow for all these other improvements to benefit our community. State regulations limit how TIF can be used within urban renewal districts, but it is my hope that more non-profit organizations will want to invest in Missoula. I also believe that if more TIF funds can be included in projects of direct public benefit such as affordable housing developments, we will be able to help address some of our biggest challenges, including housing and transportation.
Q: Do you support the city’s new housing policy, and what would you do to implement the recommendations?
A: Yes. I believe the housing policy is the necessary first step in addressing the issue of affordable housing in Missoula. We needed to recognize the problem. Now we must identify the barriers to owning and/or renting a home and explore tools that we can use to start tackling this problem. The next step is deciding which of the tools identified in the policy can be implemented first. I would start with the proposed regulatory changes such as amending our City zoning and subdivision regulations to allow for density bonuses in more zoning districts, revising the parking requirements for housing development particularly in areas well served transportation infrastructure, encouraging Townhouse Exemption Developments in the urban core. We must continue to identify and engage all possible stakeholders in our community. I would also like to see the implementation of a “Housing Hub”, where all housing-related information could reside and be accessible to those looking for answers, help, resources and guidance regarding housing.
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: First and foremost, the State should restructure the way properties are taxed. The current taxing structure is an antiquated system based on an older economic model. I believe this is in great part what causes an undue tax burden on residential property owners. In 1999, property taxes made up 42.9% of the tax base, by 2018 that figure had increased to 60.8%. Continued funding cuts at the state level leave cities responsible for funding those services. However, besides property taxes, cities are limited in terms of implementing other ways to create revenue. We need to support state legislators that are working to reform the tax system. I believe cities in Montana should be given the opportunity to decide if we believe a tourist tax is a good and viable way to bring in more revenue to pay for services and reduce our dependence on property taxes.
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: Yes. These racially charged comments have no place in government discourse and do nothing to foster a sense of unity and collaboration. Considering that three of the four women targeted by these comments are U.S.-born citizens, it is incredibly troubling to think that those comments are purely based on their foreign-sounding last names and skin colors. As an immigrant-U.S Citizen myself, I find it sad to have one’s commitment to this country questioned simply because of the color of one’s skin.
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: As we continue to grow, it is important to assess how we are meeting the demands for services in our community. I would encourage an optimization review of key departments in the City to gage how well we are serving our community given the limited resources at our disposal. This was done several years ago in response to the increase in building and development in Missoula and resulted in the creation of a more streamlined Development Services department. I believe this exercise can prove useful to both the City and Missoula residents as we can learn how well we are operating under current and forecasted conditions.
Q: What more can the city do to accommodate non-motorized transportation to achieve the goals in the Long Range Transportation Plan?
A: As a land use and transportation planner I believe in always looking for opportunities to create connections for non-motorized transportation when making decisions about land use. Whenever possible we should prioritize these connections as part of development rather than as an afterthought. In order to encourage people to use alternative modes of transportation we need to continue to invest in safe non-motorized transportation infrastructure. We must work on network connectivity and allocate funding for year-round maintenance. We should also bolster our private-public collaboration and incentives for alternative modes of transportation such as vanpooling, shared rides, and employer-employee benefits. Missoula County recently applied for a federal BUILD grant to fill gaps in the transportation network in areas west of Reserve Street and north of Mullan Road. If awarded this grant, my hope is that the two jurisdictions can work together to provide a safe and well-designed non-motorized connectivity network to the residents, particularly school- age children, who live in that part of 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 is to see the housing policy implemented. There are several housing strategies that I believe we can implement in the short term and others that we, together as a community, need to agree to implement in the future. As we work on the implementation of these strategies we need to continue to strengthen our public-private partnerships to find new and sustainable funding sources. Additionally, I believe many of the housing related policies will affect our transportation system. I believe a carefully considered and intentionally designed transportation grid is essential to the vitality of our community, particularly in areas west of Reserve Street. We must view all these aspects of development through the same lens. We need to be thoughtful and intentional about transportation and development decisions so that we retain Missoula’s beauty and character. I feel strongly that a thoughtful implementation of our housing policy is critical to the future of Missoula for current and future residents.