Rising fees raise hackles in Kalispell

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A crowd filled the Kalispell City Council chambers Monday to talk about proposed fee increases — many asking city leaders to find another way to cover rising costs.

In response to backlogged projects and growing requirements, council members proposed two assessment increases: one for its storm-sewer assessment and the other for the city’s urban forestry program.

During Monday’s public hearing, Terry Aurich said while the increases may be needed, he can’t afford them.

“I’m a senior citizen, age 71 next week,” Aurich said. “Seniors are suffering to keep their homes and to keep food on the table.”

Under the proposed urban-forestry increase, residents with an average square lot who pay a $15.26 assessment now would see their bill go up to $41.07 a year.

City Manager Doug Russell estimated that to take care of the forestry system’s backlog of needs would cost roughly $400,000 over two years.

Public Works Director Susie Turner said a federal mandate from the Clean Water Act means Kalispell will need additional storm-sewer personnel and funding.

If passed, the proposed stormwater increase would mean the assessment on a typical residential lot would go from $44.55 to $89.21 by 2022.

Along with financing the fund for 10 years and meeting its new requirements, the dollars would go toward growth-related projects. The additional funding means the council could consider a future 50 percent reduction in the storm-water impact fee.

Russell said planning around the proposed increases of the storm-sewer assessment rate kicked off in April. He said talks around the urban tree assessment began roughly five years ago.

Mayor Mark Johnson said the council looks for ways to fund needs through grants, federal and state dollars. For years, Kalispell has asked the state for the chance to have a local-option sales tax as a revenue builder.

“We try to work with our legislators at the state level and at that point in time we were told one thing: You’re not going to get help from Helena, raise your fees,’” Johnson said.

Jeff Zauner said his Kalispell home’s taxes had already increased by $400 this year.

“And I’m getting hit with all these other assessments or increased assessments,” he said.

Several people spoke in support of the city’s proposal, citing mounting needs.

Merna Terry said she had attended City Council meetings on a regular basis and recognized that the council’s options for balancing rising costs were limited.

Several commenters said they didn’t want to fork up more money as the city already wasn’t consistently responding to their requests for tree care.

Johnson said in the four years he’s been mayor, Monday was the fullest he’d seen the council chambers.

“I think it’s time that the citizens of Kalispell start paying a little bit more attention to what we do,” Johnson said. “We dig through the budget through several meetings. We look at every dollar that’s spent. We don’t like to waste money.”

He said the city spends $280,000 a year to maintain the city’s trees, which he called an injustice.

Johnson said the proposed increases in assessments made taxpayers aware that there are costs in the city, “and we have but one option as a council: to fund these programs on the backs of the realty taxpayers.”

At the end of Monday night’s meeting, Johnson spoke to the council and a nearly empty room.

“I’m a little mad about this. Because we’re constantly told ‘No. Don’t waste your money. Trim your budgets’ … We spend every dollar efficiently and effectively — a hell of a lot more than they do in Helena.”

The council is scheduled to vote on the stormwater and urban tree assessment Aug. 21 at the next council meeting.

Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at khoughton@dailyinterlake.com.

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