Saving open land — a taxing problem
Open-space campaigners look for the winning formula
MISSOULA, Montana — For about 20 bucks, you can get a large pizza with a couple of toppings. Or about 7 gallons of gas. Or you can spend that $20 on trails, views and clean water — if you’re a homeowner in Montana’s Missoula County this fall.
In June, the Missoula County commissioners voted to put an open-space bond on the November ballot that would raise $10 million over 20 years to set aside land in the rapidly growing area.
Missoulians are still paying off a $5 million open-space bond passed in 1995. The money — $17 a year for an average homeowner — has protected more than 3,000 acres, including two popular local peaks, Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel.
Meanwhile, other Western communities are also planning fall ballot measures to preserve open land. In California, voters will consider a $5.4 billion bond to protect and maintain coastlines and state parks and improve water quality. In Oregon, Portlanders will take up a $227 million bond to preserve natural areas and protect fish and wildlife habitat.
But it’s hard to predict which measures will triumph and which will go down in flames. There are many factors involved: the "fiscal capacity" of a community, the measure’s wording, even the length of the ballot it appears on. Tim Raphael, associate director of the Trust for Public Land’s Conservation Finance Program, calls it creating "the magic combination."
A surprise defeat
In 2004, it looked like Utah had that magic combination. Initiative 1 would have raised state sales tax by one-twentieth of a cent to fund a $150 million bond to preserve open space and build convention centers and local government buildings. The proposal seemed a shoo-in; just days before the election, polls showed that about 60 percent of voters favored it. Campaign supporters outspent their opponents by 40 to 1.
But come Election Day, the proposal lost, picking up only 45 percent of the vote. Supporters were left scratching their heads. Amanda Smith, a Nature Conservancy staffer who worked on the campaign, says, "The funding mechanism made people shy away."
Opponents, led by the Utah Taxpayers Association, had argued that citizens shouldn’t have to pony up an extra $14 per year, given already-high state and local taxes and fees. The measure duplicated other government efforts to protect the state’s water and air, they said, and local governments were already doing enough for open space.
Other factors may have contributed to the defeat: The ballot had more than 40 items, and voters weary of wading through it may have just voted no across the board. And, says Smith, the measure’s wording was "a little confusing."
Picking the right tax
Western voters have generally been willing to open their wallets for open space, though. Since 1994, they’ve approved two-thirds of some 300 local and statewide ballot measures with open-space goals, generating nearly $40 billion, according to a Trust for Public Land database.
Most such measures rely on bonds, mill levies, or sales taxes. Bonds allow communities to borrow money, which they often pay back with property tax hikes. However, bond money can be used only to acquire lands, not to maintain them. Mill levies, which raise property taxes, and sales taxes generate money more slowly, but create a long-term funding source for maintenance and operation. Since the value of a property determines the increase, higher-income taxpayers usually bear more of the cost of bonds and levies. A sales tax increase hits the pockets of visitors and tourists as well as those of residents, but may place an unfair burden on lower-income people.
In the quest for an acceptable tax, some communities get creative. In 2004, Olympia, Wash., voters OK’d a 3 percent increase in the tax on their utility bills to pay for open-space acquisitions, parks and sidewalks. The utility taxes were "a relatively untapped funding source, and the combination (of goals) was something a large number of people could support," says Karen Messmer, a member of the Olympia city council.
"Niche taxes" have succeeded in places like San Juan County, Wash., where a tax on real estate sales funds open space. Several Colorado ski towns have approved hotel-room taxes. But if real estate agents and hotel owners "believe their ox is getting gored" and fund an organized opposition, says Raphael, those taxes often fail. Two California counties voted down hotel taxes, and real estate tax measures failed in two Washington counties.
Voters in Colorado, Arizona, and Oregon have set aside lottery profits to buy parklands, wildlife habitat and recreation areas. Those programs include matching funds for communities, which encourage local open space efforts. The Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund has awarded local governments nearly half a billion dollars over the 12 years of its existence.
Since 1995, when Missoulians passed the $5 million bond, the county’s population has increased by about 18 percent. "Three different polls this winter pointed to (residents’) number-one concern: Rapid growth and the resulting loss of open space," says Jackie Corday, Missoula’s open-space program manager. Those concerns resonate elsewhere in Montana: Ravalli County commissioners are considering a $10 million open-space ballot proposal for fall.
Meanwhile, the grassy meadows and forested slopes of Mount Jumbo, looming over downtown, give Missoula residents a tangible reminder of what their taxes have already paid for — and could buy in the future, if the bond proposal passes. "We’ve preserved the mountains that are the defining characteristic of Missoula," says Corday.
The author is a freelance writer based in Missoula. Jodi Peterson, HCN’s news editor, and Ray Ring, HCN’s Northern Rockies editor, contributed to this report.