The Missoula City Council gathered in person on Monday evening for the first time in two years, debating who should foot Missoula’s sidewalk repair bills.
After going back and forth on whether the city or homeowners should bear the financial burden of sidewalk fixes, the council voted 7-4 to approve a resolution allowing the city to reimburse its budget for work done on sidewalks and repairs made in 2021.
Under the City’s Curb, Gutter, Sidewalk & Alley Approach Improvement Assessment Program, Missoula pays contractors for sidewalk repair bills up front. It then uses a type of loan program where homeowners pay the amount back over time. The city counts these repairs as assessments against the property.
Property owners are then responsible for paying semi-annual installments that stretch over eight, 12 or 20 years.
In 2021, there were four properties in Missoula that used the program, including the Ridge Homeowners Association, which was billed $26,200 to repair a hazardous sidewalk. Two other residents were billed $7,700 and $3,850 for voluntary repairs. A permit-related repair for $40,250 was billed to a fourth resident.
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Council members Daniel Carlino, Sandra Vasecka, Kristen Jordan and John Contos voted against the resolution, raising concerns about property owners footing the bills for sidewalk improvements instead of the city.
“I think this current sidewalk policy is inequitable because we’re making homeowners pay thousands of dollars for sidewalks to be built next to their house,” Carlino said, adding that all of the repairs aren’t voluntary. He and the other council members who voted against the resolution believe the city should be expensing the repairs in full instead of burdening citizens with large bills.
Mirtha Becerra countered Carlino’s concerns about equity, saying if the city was to fully pay for sidewalks, it would come out of the General Fund. This means every Missoulian who pays taxes would be paying for the sidewalks.
“I think we have to be careful with what kind of message we send when we talk about being equitable,” Becerra cautioned, adding research indicates the city doesn’t have that kind of money to cover sidewalk costs in its budget.
Council members concurred that they like sidewalks, and the infrastructure improves mobility around Missoula.
“I think this is the creative solution,” Mike Nugent said. “Prior to this version, it was more expensive for homeowners.”
One person during public comment expressed support for the program. Diane Stenslandbickers said she’s in the process of looking to buy a home in Missoula.
“Any sidewalk bill is going to be paid for by whoever owns the house it’s in front of,” Stenslandbickers said.
“Whether it’s a new sidewalk or whatever, it’s the homeowner’s sidewalk,” she said, talking to Carlino and Vasecka. “They have to pay for it one way or the other. And a cheap loan from the city is the best way to do it, the cheapest way to do it. I don’t understand why you’re against it.”
Gwen Jones stressed the resolution addresses the implementation of the policy. If Missoulians are relying on the city to finance repairs, and the city fails to back up that implementation, it would be a disservice to community members, she said. If people want to change the policy, that’s a different discussion for the future, she added.
“I hope we can work on changing the policy someday whenever there’s an appetite on council to do so,” Carlino said toward the end of the discussion.