Dancing under the stars and the headrames

In this file photo, Milton Zhinin-Barreto, of Missoula, dances during the 2018 Montana Folk Festival in Uptown Butte. Organizers of the festival are asking that voters be allowed to weigh in on a plan to transfer funds for local festivals to the Butte Local Development Corp.

Three former Butte-Silver Bow commissioners and organizers of the Montana Folk Festival are trying to thwart a proposal that would transfer control of about $65,000 in annual economic development tax money to the Butte Local Development Corp.

The former commissioners and Mainstreet Uptown Butte say voters decided years ago to put distribution of the economic development mill levy in the hands of commissioners instead of the BLDC and if that’s to be changed, voters should decide that at the ballot box.

At the very least, they say, commissioners should consider the BLDC’s pitch for the money carefully and not rush it through Wednesday night, only a week after it was formally presented.

Commissioner Cindi Shaw, who helped set the Wednesday night agenda, has recommended the proposal be “held in abeyance,” meaning no direct action is taken then. But commissioners could reject that and vote on the plan Wednesday if a majority wishes.

“We and several other community organizations who will be affected by this decision urge you to move slowly in this regard until citizens can make their opinions known about this move through a public hearing that may reveal win-win solutions not considered in this proposal,” George Everett, executive director of Mainstreet Uptown Butte, which organizes the folk festival, said in a Friday letter to commissioners.

Former commissioners Charlie O'Leary, Joe Lee and Mike Sheehy are circulating a petition that asks the council to keep distributing the money as they do now to the Montana Folk Festival, An Rí Rá, Advantage Butte, World Museum of Mining or other entities they deem appropriate until voters say otherwise.

Voters could be asked to weigh in again as early as next year, O’Leary says.

“Let’s let the public vote on it,” he said.

The BLDC tries to recruit businesses to Butte, support and grow those that are here and foster economic development through job creation and retention.

The BLDC made a pitch for control of the money last week, saying it would take $20,000 to support its general operations and steer the lion’s share of the about $65,000 the mill brings in annually toward Butte businesses that can succeed and create jobs and sales.

Ten percent of the money would be used to administer the business program, and applicants would have to provide detailed financial information and business plans and meet with BLDC staff monthly to gauge progress in creating jobs, sales and other measurable activity.

Some commissioners support the idea, saying their current process of giving the money to a dozen or so events, entities and causes each year isn’t creating jobs or delivering much economic development for the buck.

The BLDC has now formalized its request and proposed a draft agreement that will be before council Wednesday night.

“We are confident that returning the economic development mill to Butte’s leading economic development organization will lead to the creation of jobs, investment of funds from outside sources and continue the strong legacy that the partnership between BSB and the BLDC has created,” BLDC Executive Director Joe Willauer said in a Friday letter to commissioners.

Voters approved the levy in 1990, and it was steered to the BLDC for years. Residents decided in 2004 to keep the levy, but amid considerable discontent with the BLDC, nearly 80 percent of voters wanted commissioners to decide how it was spent. The county continued to give the BLDC $46,000 in other funds each year, which continues today.

Commissioners have given considerable chunks of the mill money in recent years to Butte’s summer festivals, including the Montana Folk Festival, and to Advantage Butte, a group that bids for and host sports tournaments here. The BLDC has also gotten sizable slices to support its efforts.

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O’Leary says the council has been thoughtful in spending the money and that the festivals and many projects have made Butte a better place to visit and do business. Some ideas were flops, he said, but many have benefited the local economy.

He said the last time residents had a say on the mill levy was 2008, when they voted to keep it but rejected a second proposal to increase the revenue haul to $100,000. O’Leary was a commissioner at the time.

“The voters said, ‘Yeah, you can continue the levy but we aren’t going to give you any more money,” he said. “Voters are very thoughtful about how their taxes are spent.”

If commissioners want to change it, O’Leary said, they should put that before voters next year.

Shaw, the commissioner, also questions whether the council alone should change something that voters decided in 2004.

“I would argue that you can’t just undo something the voters mandated,” she said.

Willauer says he strongly supports Advantage Butte and the summer festivals, but they have other sources of tax money that better fit their purposes, such as hotel bed taxes overseen by the Tourism Business Improvement District.

“I am a huge proponent of the festivals, as well as Advantage Butte, but I think if we are strategic about the use of our funds we can get everyone’s needs met,” he said.

But Everett, who helps organize and oversee the Folk Festival each year, suggests that the BLDC look elsewhere.

“For example, one idea I have heard so far is to increase the annual county support of the BLDC by $25,000 through TIFID (industrial tax district) or general fund monies and then exclude them from applying for economic mill levy funds in the future,” he wrote in his letter to commissioners.

Everett said mill money in 2006 allowed him to pitch Butte as a site for the National Folk Festival. The application was accepted and the national festival was held here in 2008, 2009 and 2010, followed by the Montana Folk Festival since then.

The annual folk festival brings tens of thousands of visitors and their dollars to Butte each year, infrastructure improvements have been made to support the events and the festivals pay out $300,000 for goods and services each year, Everett said.

The mill allocation might be small but it represents an important financial contribution by the county, he said in his letter, and commissioners should “defer on the side of caution” as they consider the BLDC’s proposal.

Under one change since last week, Willauer said, nonprofits would be eligible to seek mill money from the BLDC along with businesses.

Commissioners meet at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday on the third floor of the courthouse, 155 W. Granite, and anyone from the public can weigh in on the proposal.

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Government and politics reporter

Mike Smith is a reporter at the Montana Standard with an emphasis on government and politics.

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