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Voters could get say on Butte economic development levy

Voters could get say on Butte economic development levy

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After years without a direct say, voters in Butte-Silver Bow will likely decide in June whether they’re still OK with paying about $65,000 in annual property taxes specifically for economic development.

They initially approved the one-mill levy and allocation in 1990 and have reauthorized it at times since then, with a few twists along the way. But commissioners have imposed it on their own since the last voter-authorized measure expired in 2012.

Both methods are allowed under state law — by voters or by a local governing body. But Charlie O’Leary, a former Butte-Silver Bow commissioner who favors the tax, says it’s still time to “check in with the people.”

“The county has taken the easy route the last 10 years and simply imposed it on their own,” O’Leary told The Montana Standard. “But that leaves the taxpayers — the people who are footing the bill — out of the picture.”

He hopes voters keep the levy but says if they don’t, so be it.

“You have to respond to and respect the people who are paying the bills,” O’Leary said.

He delivered the same pitch to commissioners Wednesday night and they voted 9-2 to put the economic development mill levy before voters again on the June 2 primary election ballot.

County Attorney Eileen Joyce will draw up a resolution asking voters if they want to impose the annual tax for a four-year period. If the council OKs the resolution by early March, it would go on the primary ballot.

Commissioners supporting the move Wednesday night were Michele Shea, Eric Mankins, Josh O’Neill, Bill Andersen, Cindi Shaw, Brendan McDonough, Jim Fisher, Shawn Fredrickson and John Sorich. Voting against were Dan Callahan and Dan Olsen. John Morgan was absent.

The levy generates about $65,000 a year and when voters first OK’d it in 1990, the money was steered to the Butte Local Development Corp. It tries to recruit businesses, support and grow existing ones and foster economic development through job creation and retention.

Voters decided in 2004 to keep the levy, but amid considerable discontent with the BLDC, nearly 80 percent of them wanted commissioners to decide how it was spent. The county continued to give the BLDC at least $46,000 in other funds each year, which continues today.

Voters last had a say in 2008, when they authorized the levy for another four years but rejected a second proposal to increase the revenue haul to $100,000. O’Leary was a commissioner at the time.

For several years now, commissioners have solicited proposals and doled the money out to numerous projects and organizations, including Butte’s summer festivals, Advantage Butte, the World Museum of Mining, Friends of the Urban Forest Board and many others. The BLDC has gotten sizable allocations too.

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

Some commissioners and business leaders supported the move, but some did not. Opponents included O’Leary, two other former commissioners and backers of the Montana Folk Festival and Advantage Butte, a group that bids for and hosts sports tournaments here.

O’Leary helped circulate a petition asking the council to keep distributing the money until voters said otherwise. More than 300 people signed the petition, but O’Leary says it wasn’t submitted because the BLDC pulled its proposal amid backlash from opponents.

O’Leary says the levy has generated about $750,000 for economic development causes over the years, many of them successful, but voters should still get a say on whether it continues.

Callahan noted that voters had approved the levy several times over the years and never rejected it.

“I don’t see the reason on having the public keep voting on something they have always told us yes on,” Callahan said.

Olsen, who supported last year’s short-lived push to steer all the money to the BLDC, suggested O’Leary’s proposal was a “solution in search of problem.”

O’Leary said he did see a problem.

“The taxpayers, the people who pay the bills, have not been included in this process since 2008 and that is a problem for me having witnessed what took place the previous 20 years,” he said.

Joyce said putting the question on the primary ballot shouldn’t add any real expense to the county.

A council committee plans to hear new project pitches for the money this month.

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