Archive for September 10th, 2007

by Rebecca Schmitz
There are two different stories out there about the special improvement district tax, or SID, proposed for Hillview Way as reported in the Missoulian. Keila Szpaller has one version:

“I’m going to probably have to sell my house,” said Linda Frey, who has lived in the neighborhood more than 30 years and owns roughly 10 acres she never planned to develop. The Missoula City Council is considering a special improvement district, or tax, that would affect some 1,000 properties in the area. If the tax is approved, Frey said she would be hit with a $65,000 assessment. And that would price her out of a neighborhood where she planned to retire.

Personally, I know I would have a meltdown if I saw that figure on a tax bill, a credit card bill, or any kind of bill, really. The article continues:

As proposed, the tax is estimated to run property owners anywhere from $10 to $27 a month. Most principal assessments range from $1,000 to $5,000, so Frey’s cost is higher than most. Frey, however, said the assessment is calculated as though she planned to develop her acreage. One idea aired to soften the blow is a tax deferment, but Frey doesn’t believe that would help. Accruing interest would only increase the bottom line. And she said like many people, her home is her only asset.

When I first read this, I was angry for Frey. Who’s walking or biking up Hillview Way on a regular basis? $65,000? Are they kidding me? What are people on limited incomes supposed to do? But then the latest edition of Ward Three Councilman Bob Jaffe’s Missoulagov Digest appeared in my e-mail inbox. Councilman Jaffe has another version of the Hillview Way SID.

Linda Frey’s situation is exactly what we were concerned about when we created the deferment program for this project. If she has no plans to develop her property she will never pay a dime towards this SID. She owns ten acres up on the hill. If she does plan to develop in the future the sale of a single 5400 square foot lot will pay off her obligation along with any interest accrued. The statement that she never plans to build but isn’t interested in the deferment because it accrues interest does not make sense to me. The interest is only of consequence if she develops. But at that time there would be an awful lot of money on the table and this would be only one of a number of significant infrastructure investments she would have to make. I would guess developing ten acres of hillside property to city standards would come with at least a million dollars of infrastructure improvements (at least at the rates the City pays for everything). The $65,000 towards Hillview way needs to be kept in perspective.

The article really could have used a more balanced presentation of the deferment program. The council is very concerned about the SID driving the conversion of open space property. I believe we have come up with a fair solution.

Another thing that came out in committee was that the bike lanes do not come at any extra cost since that space is needed for a breakdown lane anyway. Its just an extra stripe of paint. Also keep in mind that there is a school at the top of this hill. There is no reason kids can’t walk to school when they live close by just because there is a four or five percent grade. Hell, its only up hill one way.

The article reads as if the author’s intent is to foment a sense that the city is out to ruin people. Right up there with police and fire is the city’s obligation to build and maintain infrastructure. None of these essential services come cheap.

Bob Jaffe

Many years ago, I received a degree in history from the University of Montana. Linda Frey, as in Professor Linda Frey, Ph.D. of the history department, is a brilliant teacher. I never took any classes from her–her field is early modern Europe and mine was the American West–but I have a few close friends and fellow history grads who consider her one of their mentors. I can’t imagine Dr. Frey got her facts wrong. I’m sure Councilman Jaffe knows what he’s talking about. That leaves one corporate newspaper responsible for not getting both sides of this story.

by Pete Talbot

That’s what some of the conservative bloggers say could happen with Missoula’s new mail-in ballots.

So I thought I’d check with Vickie Zeier, Missoula County’s Clerk and Recorder/Treasurer, to see what the county was doing to stop these nefarious ballot fraudsters.

First, the election judges down at the courthouse check the signature on the every ballot’s return envelope against the signature on the voter’s registration card. If there are any discrepancies, the ballot goes to a supervisor. If the supervisor still has concerns, the signatures are compared by a handwriting expert. If that expert can’t verify the signatures’ authenticity, the voter is called to find out what’s going on.

And the biggest fraud so far for those few ballots that the experts couldn’t verify? Usually a wife submitting a ballot for an out-of-town husband, or vice-versa. Those ballots are voided and the errant spouse must then go down to the elections office if they want to vote.

Other conservative concerns were the large number of ballots that were returned because the registered voter no longer lived at that address. I’m not sure I follow the logic here. You’d think that would be good news — that ballots weren’t being delivered or forwarded to folks that don’t live at that specific residence anymore.

And as Zeier points out, this is a university town, where 10-15,000 people move in any given year.

Finally, only twenty judges are needed to handle the new mail-in ballot system. Compare that to the 600 judges that are needed for the old system (in other words, polling places all over the city). Which do you think has a greater chance for error?

I don’t know what it is about the Republican’s penchant for making it more difficult for people to vote. Known as the Brad Johnson syndrome, things like same-day voter registration and mail-in ballots seem to trigger the knee-jerk response: “fraud!” I guess these folks just don’t like the people’s participation in elections. For some background on voter fraud accusations by the Republicans, go to these stories at Left in the West.

I’d like to link readers to one of the conservative blog sites, Scoop Montana, that is espousing the fraud mantra but it recently went to “invite only” status. Now this could be just a mistake or some administration problem (Lord knows, these things happen). Or it could be the conservative aversion to informed comment and debate (that certainly happens, too). So you can try linking and I’ll keep trying to access the site, and I’ll gladly post a correction if Scoop Montana becomes available to everyone again.

‘Scoop’ also said that the mail-in ballots probably wouldn’t increase turnout. As of today, about 20 percent of registered voters had mailed in ballots. The county elections department is hoping for a 30 percent turnout by the end of election day. That’s pitifully low but way better than the eight percent (or less) that usually vote in these types of elections.

Last but not least, a PSA. There are five drop-off sites for your ballots around town that will be open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. on Tuesday. They are: Cold Springs School, Paxson School, Russell School, Rattlesnake School and Hellgate Elementary School. You have to take your ballot there, they won’t have ballots for you.

You can also drop off your ballot at the elections department at the county courthouse, and if you’re registered to vote but can’t find your ballot, you can pick one up there. You can also register to vote, and vote! The elections department is in the courthouse annex (best accessed via Pine St.) and is also open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. DON’T FORGET YOUR ID IF YOU’RE PICKING UP A BALLOT OR REGISTERING.

UPDATE: Scoop Montana is back. Here’s the explanation for the “invite only” status at the site yesterday:

“The Scoop apologies for taking what I will only explain as an unexpected hiatus.  For the last 24 hours, I converted the site to allow registered visitor only.  Welcome back. No registration needed.”

Then, in the comment section, he wrote this:

“I’ve taken the day off to think about the ethics of blogging. No joke. Some day I’ll write more about it…”

I’m looking forward to that day, seriously. We all need a little introspection from time-to-time.

But here’s the main post (from Scoop Montana) that I used to springboard into my piece above.

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