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Nationwide there seems to be a complete disconnect between the reality we citizens face every day and the things our politicians are saying and doing.  In the face of devastating unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, corporations run amuck, a disastrous health care system, disastrous higher education costs, and environmental disasters all around all we hear from our leaders is cut, cut, cut spending; cut, cut, cut regulations; cut, cut, cut taxes; and drill baby drill.  That's the big picture.  Follow along for my local example of this complete disconnect.

I'm an advocate for pedestrian infrastructure improvements in my city.  I serve on a committee of volunteers that advises our city commision on issues regarding non-motorized transportation.  I believe that transportation is fundamental to so many other challenges our community faces including high rates of drunk driving, air pollution, obesity, personal economics, and city budget problems.  Our small city is only three miles across making it pretty easy to walk or bike nearly everywhere you need to go.  Unfortunately suburbanization and car-culture dominate the city and pedestrian infrastructure is largely deficient.

Our group has recently been working on a recommendation for the city on how to go about improving sidewalk infrastructure with an aim toward ADA compliance.  The city was recently sued successfully by a woman who fell out of her wheelchair at a non-compliant street crossing.  This was not the first instance of a disabled citizen having a serious problem getting around town.  If improvements aren't made it surely won't be the last and the city can expect more lawsuits.  

What became most clear to us during our review was the massive scope of the problem.  There is easily 5 to 10 million dollars worth of improvements that need to be done.  As in many cities, our sidewalks are paid for by the adjacent property owner.  The city has a pool of money they use to provide interest free loans to the property owners making the improvements which the property owner pays back through their property taxes.  This pool of money is a meagre $100,000 annually.  It may be possible to increase that pool to some degree, perhaps even doubling it.  But even that increase is far short of what's needed and it ignores the problem that it's up to property owners to volunteer to make sidewalk improvements or the city must order property owners to make those improvements.  How do you tell a struggling home owner that you're going jack up their property tax bill to pay for a sidewalk they don't want?  The city manager doesn't want to be the bad guy so our group is working on a method to prioritize improvements and develop criteria to justify the ordering in of sidewalks.  It's a bad system.  It angers property owners and doesn't begin to solve the problem of grossly deficient sidewalk infrastructure.

A better funding mechanism for improvements would be to create a special improvement tax district in the city.  All property owners would share the cost of improvements.  With roughly 25,000 property owners we could raise $10,000,000 dollars at an average cost of $400 to each property owner.  That amount wouldn't need to be raised in a single year though.  A 10 year time frame would be more realistic. Of course the complaint is that this system would be unfair to the property owners who already paid for improvements to their sidewalks.  My response to that is: Grow up, life's not fair.

Now to my point.  On the issue of sidewalk improvements and so many other challenges our city faces the problem we run into is the city just doesn't have the money to deal with them.  We've struggled to balance the budget every year through wage freezes, hiring freezes, cuts, and by delaying important projects.  Where the great disconnect lies is that the state of Montana has a near $500 million dollar budget surplus.  Our Democrat governor's plan for this surplus is to give every property tax payer a one-time, $400 refund.  A similar refund was paid a few years ago as well.

Sure, those property tax refunds will help the local economy and some struggling citizens out somewhat.  But for me, and I'm sure many other well-off property owners, I'll just use the refund to pay down debt or simply save it which doesn't do anything for the local economy.  And it completely ignores the fact that our city, and I'm sure many others, are millions of dollars behind on infrastructure projects.  Wouldn't that surplus be better spent paying local contractors to build sidewalks so the city doesn't get sued into oblivion?  There are hundreds of projects the city should be doing that would put people to work, put money directly into the local economy and make the city a better place to live.

But of course you won't hear much talk of these ideas up at the GOP-controlled legislature.  Up there we can't afford to pay our teachers and public employees a decent wage.  We can't afford to fix our infrastructure.  We can't fix public employee pensions that got hammered when the markets crashed.  We can't invest in quality of life improvements in our cities.  But for some reason we can afford to give every property tax payer $400 that they probably don't need!?  It's ludicrous.  It's completely disconnected from the challenging reality we face in our cities every day.

Originally posted to Helena Pedestrian on Wed Mar 06, 2013 at 12:04 PM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  You are (12+ / 0-)

    on the side of the angels.  Thank you.

    "The light which puts out our sight is darkness to us." Thoreau

    by NancyWH on Wed Mar 06, 2013 at 02:57:32 PM PST

  •  Are you serious? (7+ / 0-)
    Our Democrat governor's plan for this surplus is to give every property tax payer a one-time, $400 refund.
    This is the state that gets most of its revenue from an income tax system whose top rate is 6.9%, paid on all income more over $16,000? (And, of course, people paying less still pay state sales tax, just at a lower rate. Even if you are below the federal poverty line, you're probably still paying at least 3 or 4 percent of your whole income on state income tax.)

    So basically, they'd be taking from everyone, and giving back to those who are wealthy enough to own property. And that's the Democratic plan.

    That's just awesome.

    •  Er, sorry, misstatement (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      linkage, Lily O Lady

      I meant 'people who are paid less [than $16k] are still paying state income tax, just at a lower rate'. Not state sales tax, and not 'people who are paying less'. That's what happens when you don't proofread.

      •  That's right Fred (11+ / 0-)

        There's also a popular bill that drops our current 7 tax brackets ranging from 1% to the 6.9% you mentioned, down to 2 brackets at 4% up to $15600 and 5.9% thereafter.  Yes, that's a big tax hike for poor people and a cut for everyone else.  This is done under the guise of "simplifying the tax code" as if more brackets really makes it more complicated.  

        If you don't like that bill there's another that is just a 5.5% rate for all.  Once again, a major tax hike for low-income and a big tax cut for high income.

        And don't get me started on the oil and gas tax holiday or the plans to nearly eliminate business equipment taxes.

        Many Montana Democrats would be Republicans in other states, Max Baucus for instance.  Many Montana Republicans make your average tea-partier look progressive.  There's a crew of the nutters that have fought for years to keep an old anti-sodomy law on the books.

        It seems the goal of the legislature is "if it ain't broke, break it."

  •  Thank You .... (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Regina in a Sears Kit House, BYw

    I'm on a citizens committee in my town.  I'm shocked as to how much things cost.

    Please keep trying and do not give up. We need everyone to step up and be involved in our communities.

    By, the way can I quote you in a future diary with attribution. I think speaking on the global then jumping to the local is narrative theme worth exploring.

    JON

    "Upward, not Northward" - Flatland, by EA Abbott

    by linkage on Wed Mar 06, 2013 at 07:38:10 PM PST

  •  To the governors credit (6+ / 0-)

    His refund is only $100 million of the current surplus and his budget restores a lot of funding to health and human services and includes a pay raise for state employees.  He also has a plan to fix the state employee pension shortfall and freeze tuition at the Universities.

    Further, the GOP plan is far worse with a permanent $300 million tax cut, probably no pay raise, and an end to the defined benefit pension.  Bullock's veto is the only thing standing between us and all manner of awful GOP legislation (concealed carry in bars, anyone?). I'm certainly thankful for his election.  It was a real close call.

  •  Even better plan (with no chance)... (4+ / 0-)

    1. US government borrows shitload of money at current interest rates of close to zero.

    2. US government spends money on fixing sidewalks and other infrastructure projects.

    Why is no one in Washington listening to Nobel economics winners Krugman, Stiglitz, and Solow?

    "The true strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals." - Barack Obama

    by HeyMikey on Wed Mar 06, 2013 at 08:59:49 PM PST

  •  have you listened to your state RW megastations? (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Regina in a Sears Kit House, BYw

    state legislatures all over the country have been getting pushed and prodded and intimidated by the state limbaugh/hannity megastations with local flavor from the well coordinated local blowhards getting material and guests from RW think tanks and GOP.

    they are basically free advertising for whatever those think tanks and the GOP wants to do. yet your state dem party probably has no clue what they're blasting out every day.

    how many concerned citizen activists is a lazy ignorant reader of talking points with a 50000watt megaphone and a bunch of university sports team logos all over it worth?

    a lot.

    This is a list of 76 universities for Rush Limbaugh that endorse global warming denial, racism, sexism, and GOP lies by broadcasting sports on over 170 Limbaugh radio stations.

    by certainot on Wed Mar 06, 2013 at 09:21:39 PM PST

  •  In Missoula here (4+ / 0-)

    It's great you are on the bike/pedestrian committee! I've been hoping to do that here in Missoula someday, as well. I think the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Board here makes quite a difference.  

    The city council has adopted a comprehensive streets policy. All road projects now study bike/pedestrian impact, and improvements are the norm. We have an extensive bike lane system, are experimenting with so called "green bike lanes", and have put our roads on a "diet" to slow traffic and increase pedestrian access. I don't agree with everything the city does pertaining to the roads - snow removal seems to still befuddle us - however, being an avid cyclist and bike commuter, I really appreciate how this town has approached bikes and pedestrians. It helps makes us a healthy, vibrant town, and the more access there is, the more people use it.

    You still get the occasional hater writing letters to the editor complaining about spending tax dollars on these projects because "bikers don't pay taxes", blah, blah, blah. They always get quickly decimated in the well-thought-out, logical responses that come down the line. :) At least we don't have people making claims that biking leads to more air pollution! LOL.

    •  Hi from Helena (0+ / 0-)

      I'll tell you, here in Helena we're envious of the progress Missoula has made for bikes and pedestrians.  Our efforts seem to be a few years behind yours.  On many issues I've gotten used to hearing "well, in Missoula they've..."

      While our city is largely supportive of our efforts I find that the MT DOT is less so.  They control some of the major arterials in Helena and seem to have little interest in bike and pedestrian considerations.  We have to watch everything they do and hound them into considering non-motorized issues.  We've got a good city engineer who keeps a close eye on them for us.  Little things like building storm drains that don't catch bike wheels are a big deal for cyclists but they don't seem to be a priority for the engineers at the DOT.

  •  This is a perfect example of how selfish our (0+ / 0-)

    fellow citizens have become. It is the offshoot of Madison Avenue's marketing...our wants have become needs...and our needs have been exaggerated to the point of insanity.

    "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." ~ Edward Abbey

    by SaraBeth on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 02:22:11 AM PST

  •  Hello fellow Helenean (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    BYw

    Thank you for your work on the non-motorized transportation committee.

    A concern I have during this time of year is getting all the property owners to shovel their sidewalks before they become solid ice after a snowstorm.

    One of the worst offenders is the Starbucks on the corner of last Chance and Neil Avenue, who almost never clear their sidewalks, making that corner a dangerous  ice skating rink for any pedestrian like me who works downtown.

    Helena is getting more pedestrian-biker friendly, but it is slow going!

    "I come close to despair because so many of the pieces of the country are broken, and when you see that, you have two choices: You can give up, or you can do something about it." Elizabeth Warren

    by Ed in Montana on Thu Mar 07, 2013 at 05:21:47 AM PST

    •  Hi Ed (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ed in Montana

      Sidewalk shoveling is an issue our committee has discussed.  It's another one of those "complaint driven" systems.  I would encourage you to report Starbucks to the city if they're not clearing their sidewalk.  That's the only way anything will get done about it.  The Hardees on Benton Ave seems to be another repeat offender.

      I can tell you that as of early January the city had received 241 complaints, sent out 206 letters and issued 21 citations for 15 properties.  The citation is only a $50 fine, but the city will take action if a complaint is made.  

      One of my concerns regarding sidewalks is the breaks in the walks such as the parking lot entries to Starbucks.  Those usually get plowed but often vehicles compact snow in these areas and they end up really icy.  I'm not sure if those areas carry the same snow removal requirement as the actual sidewalk.  I plan to look into it.

      There's one guy in a wheelchair in my neighborhood I often see.  It's maddening to see how difficult and dangerous it is for him to get around when it's snowy.  We need to do a better job making the city accessible for people like him.

      You're right.  It's getting better, but progress is slow.

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