By Michael Howell
Following a public hearing last Thursday, October 11, the Stevensville Town Council passed an amended ordinance lowering the speed limits on Chilcott, Smith, Barbara, Valley View, Turner and Heritage Streets from 25 mph to 20 mph. All streets in the town have a 25 mph speed limit unless otherwise posted. Lowering the speed limit on those streets will require that signs be posted in the area showing the 20 mph speed limit.
The public hearing was called in response to two separate citizen petitions. The first was a petition seeking to have the speed limit on those streets lowered to 15 mph. The second was a petition against the 15 mph proposal. At the hearing the Town Council heard from both sides.
Those in favor of the 15 mph limit spoke about the number of children in the area and the danger of a child running out from between two parked vehicles. There are usually quite a few vehicles parked along the street sides, they said. They complained about people driving too fast in the area.
Those against the new limit argued that 15 mph was too slow for ordinary traffic. A few claimed their vehicles idle at 18 to 21 mph. A few people, including Police Chief James Marble, noted that the average person drives 18 to 20 mph in the area. One person said it was already a “training ground for funeral processions,” the cars drive so slow. He said it made more sense to enforce the current speed limit. Others suggested that allowing children to play in the street and the congested parking along the street side were the real problems.
One mother said that three-year-old children will act their age and run in the street without thinking. She said even adults make mistakes and if one life could be saved by lowering the speed limit it would be worth it. Others noted that the sidewalks in the area were narrow and most people walking in groups took to the street.
Mayor Gene Mim Mack noted that there are eight areas in town where the speed limit is set at 15 mph, most of them near the school or a park.
Councilor Desera Towle said that, given the fact that the sidewalks in the area were not adequate forcing pedestrians to use the street, a 15 mph limit might be called for. She suggested making it a temporary change and reviewing it in a year.
Councilor Robin Holcomb said that she walks down Valley View with a friend a lot and that the sidewalks are too narrow, forcing them to walk in the street. She advocated the 15 mph speed limit “not just for the kids but for general safety.”
Councilor Bill Perrin said that the neighborhood had single family and multi-family housing and maybe a lot of children in the area. He noted public comment to the effect that the average driver goes about 20 mph. He said when the state does traffic studies they set the limit at what people normally drive.
“That appears to be around 20 mph in this case,” said Perrin. He said recent events involving children running out in front of cars also made a case “for doing something.” He said neighbors seem to know what the danger is and drive prudently. He said outsiders seem to be the problem. Perrin said that the other 15 mph areas in town seemed to be related to schools and parks and other conditions. He advocated setting a 20 mph speed limit in the area.
Councilor Ron Klaphake agreed with Perrin and said that by lowering it to 20 mph it would necessitate putting up signs which may have some effect.
The ordinance was amended to set the limit at 20 mph instead of the original 15 mph on a 3 to 1 vote and the ordinance was then passed on a 3 to 1 vote with Holcomb voting against both motions.
The ordinance will not take effect until 30 days after approval and then there will be a period where only warnings are issued “until people get used to it,” said Police Chief Marble.
Council considers annexing airport
Councilor Ron Klaphake asked the council to consider directing the Mayor to file a petition for annexation to bring the Stevensville Airport into the town’s jurisdiction, putting the property, owned by the town, on the town’s tax rolls.
Klaphake, Chairman of the Stevensville Airport Board, explained that by annexing the property the town would not only bring over $4 million in taxable value into the tax base, it would also bring the possibility of establishing a tax increment financing district to help finance future improvement projects required to keep the airport up to minimum federal standards.
The Town has currently budgeted $309,000 for a taxi lane improvement project that will create additional hangar space. The town has committed about $14,500 out of the airport’s cash balance to meet the grant match of 5% for that project. Montana State Aeronautics is footing 5% and the FAA is furnishing 90% of the funds. At the same time the airport is looking at a long term capital improvement plan that involves reconstruction of the runway that is estimated to cost $3.178 million by 2016. According to Klaphake, without any new revenues the airport fund will be looking at an $80,000 to $240,000 shortfall at that time.
At the request of the mayor, town attorney Brian West provided a letter outlining the process by which the town could annex the property. He noted that the law allows the town to annex property by a number of different methods. In this case, he wrote, the appropriate method would be “annexation by petition” since the town is the sole owner of the land being annexed. He said the mayor may submit a petition for annexation of the property. He also noted that if the land is used in whole or in part for transportation that 100 % of the landowners must sign the petition. In this case the town represents 100% of the ownership. He also noted that the annexation must include a plan for providing services to the area in accordance with the town’s Growth Policy. If the Council is in favor of the annexation it must then pass a resolution providing for the annexation.
West noted that in the course of his research he did find statutes authorizing the exercise of municipal jurisdiction over lands outside the corporate limits of the municipality. He intends to do further research to determine if the statute might assist in achieving the goals of the town “without the burden of annexation and its incumbent requirement of a plan for services.”
Klaphake stated that a plan for services would take into account the purpose of the property primarily as storage hangars rather than residences. He said that some existing hangars had septic services and that with 100 acres of land there was room to accommodate more septics. He noted that the current shallow irrigation well could be developed to provide drinking water. H said the growth policy already mentions the airport, but could be amended to include more details about the role of the airport land in future development. He said some zoning regulations might also have to be tweaked to clarify issues concerning the difference between public facility and industrial and or commercial designations of the area.
“But we could do all this at once,” said Klaphake. “We could amend the Growth Policy, tweak the zoning regulations, annex the property and establish a tax increment financing district all within the same time frame.”
A motion to direct the mayor to work with the town’s attorney to draft a petition for annexation of the airport land was unanimously approved by the Council.
Security at Lewis and Clark Park discussed
Soccer coach Cathi Cook, whose teams use the Lewis and Clark Park for games, is approaching the end of her patience over vandalism issues at the park. She told the Council that while they were discussing security issues at the park at their last meeting the bathroom at the park was being vandalized. Cook said that she does her own drive-bys morning and evening to check on the soccer goals which have been repeatedly vandalized. She said the last time she saw some teenagers hanging out and asked their names. She said they denied vandalizing the goal which had been removed and set onto the basketball court. Later, however, she was shown a video made by a neighbor of the kids doing the vandalism. She said patrolling the park took too much of her time and was not feasible.
“I can’t come back here every two weeks and tell you to fix your fence,” she said. “I’m upset not just by what’s happening to our equipment, but what’s happening to our town.” She said the town should consider fixing the fence, replacing the gates and closing the park at night. She said lights would help and signs and possibly cameras.
“We’ve got to do something,” said Cook.
“We’ve obviously got security issues,” said Police Chief James Marble. He said Lewis and Clark Park was the most vandalized park in the town. He advocated fixing the fence, which has been broken down for a while and replacing the gates that block entrance to the park after hours. He advocated returning to the policy of locking the gates at night and locking the bathroom at night as well. Although officers do sometimes chase people out of the park at night, he said the real issue seems to be the time from when school’s out until dark.
“There is a definite lack of supervision at the park,” said Marble, but two officers could not adequately patrol the park. He suggested that the Council consider other means such as motion sensitive lights, perhaps. “We need to put a cap on this,” he said.
Mayor Mim Mack agreed that the fence should be fixed and the gates replaced and locked at night. He said proper signage should also be installed. He called the lighting a “multi-layered issue” involving the neighbors that he could begin looking into. Klaphake said that the current ordinance governing use of the park needed to be amended to state that the park is closed “from sunset to sunrise.”
Water meter problems corrected
Mayor Mim Mack reported that a problem with some of the newly installed water meters had been identified and corrected. He said that Master Meter, the company providing the new meters, did a spot check and determined that a batch of 112 meters had been delivered to the town without any pre-programming. He said some of those meters, which were then programmed in the field upon installation, were not programmed correctly and overstated the water use by up to 30%.
Mim Mack said the town has since checked all 112 of the meters and found errors in programming on 18 of them. Those meters were re-programmed and are now reading correctly. He said they went one step further and tested a sampling of 30 of the pre-programmed meters and found all 30 reading correctly.
The Mayor said the overcharges created by the mis-programmed meters totaled about $2,600. He said the billings for the affected residents were retroactively adjusted to a flat rate from the time of installation and they were reimbursed or given credit for the overcharges.
“I think this is an example of a proper response when we’ve discovered a probem,” said Mim Mack. He said he also believed the town was on the tail end of discovery of problems with the system.
Council discusses public notice
A few Town Council members expressed concern about a Public Notice published in the Bitterroot Star last week stating that the Town of Stevensville was over 180 days delinquent in filing its 2011 annual financial reports.
“The Single Audit Act,” the notice stated, “was established to help ensure that Montana local governments provide transparency and accountability to their taxpayers.”
Councilor Towle expressed concern about who had placed the advertisement.
Klaphake agreed, saying, “When I saw that I thought, where did that come from? It didn’t look like a government insert. I had no idea where it came from and questioned its validity. I think we should find out where that came from.”
“I’ve been in contact multiple times with the government office that posted that notice,” said Mayor Mim Mack. “They are aware of our efforts in working directly with the administrative office on these issues, but their own regulations require them to post such a notice. They know we are very close to having this completely resolved, but they will continue to post the notice to meet their public accountability.”
The town has already paid a fine for the infraction. The Mayor said that the town had asked for consideration of reimbursement of the fine upon compliance but hadn’t yet heard back from the Internal Revenue Service.
Towle said that the Town should respond somehow because the notice “gives the wrong picture.”
No action was taken.
Council conditionally approves Mayor’s temporary move
Mayor Gene Mim Mack asked for and received permission from the Council to temporarily occupy a residence that is technically out of the city limits while his wife recovers from surgery. The couple currently resides on the third floor of the Stevensville Hotel, which they own and operate. In order to avoid the extreme difficulty in maneuvering up and down three flights of stairs while recovering from hip surgery, the couple has made arrangements to stay at a home owned by a friend. That property, although not technically in the town limits, is surrounded on three sides by town property.
The Mayor’s request included an opinion form the town attorney that the temporary arrangement would not be in violation of the law requiring the Mayor to reside in town, since the arrangement was only temporary and the Mayor had no “intention” of vacating his official residence which remains at the hotel.
The council took no action but requested a letter from the Mayor stating his intention to keep his current residence and continue to perform his duties as Mayor despite the temporary sleeping arrangements.