By Krystal Spring/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
The fate of the historic building that several local businesses and the Hill County museum call home is still up in the air, but a Havre City Council member and proponent of historic preservation says the fate of the Heritage Center should be put to a vote of the public.
"The Heritage Center has always been a public building and a public gathering place," said Emily Mayer Lossing. "I think the community should decide its fate."
Mayer Lossing, who's also the manager of Hill County's H. Earl Clack Museum, recently asked her fellow City Council members to consider placing the downtown landmark on the ballot in November 2005. She proposed that all property owners in the city pay a flat fee, $24, to support the building.
"That money would pay for the everyday bills - power, water, all the utilities," she said. "The additional money could be used to fund larger projects, like replacing the boiler system and upgrading the building's electrical system and plumbing."
Mayer Lossing also proposed that the council appoint a Heritage Center board, made up of community members, that would oversee the building and report on its management and funding issues to the council once a month.
The council voted in June to consider selling the building to a private entity after the H. Earl Clack Foundation said it could no longer afford to operate the city-owned building. But those plans are on hold until the city receives the go-ahead from the Montana Department of Transportation. More than $150,000 in grant money from MDT's Community Transportation Enhancement Program was used to purchase and renovate the historic center, which may have to be repaid by the city if the building is sold to a private group.
Dale Paulson, a program development engineer with the Federal Highway Administration in Helena, said it's planning a meeting with Havre city officials and representatives from MDT sometime next week to discuss concerns about the building.
Mayer Lossing said she'll continue to urge the council to reconsider its plans to sell the building. She said she'd like to see the issue placed on the ballot in the municipal election next year.
"I really believe that if the community has a voice in this decision, that they'd vote to support the building financially, keeping it in public hands," she said.
Alec Hansen, executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns, said the funding for the Heritage Center could be put on the ballot in one of two ways - as a referendum or an initiative.
"A referendum is usually a little easier to do; it just takes the vote of the City Council," Hansen said.
If the council voted to approve the issue it would be placed on the ballot as a referendum.
An initiative is a citizen-led effort to get an issue on the ballot. Hansen said an initiative requires a number of steps, including a petition process. According to state law, before a petition may be circulated for signatures, a sample form must be submitted to the county election administrator for approval, who will also refer a copy of the petition to the city attorney, who will review it and prepare a ballot statement on the issue. Within 21 days of the submission of the the sample petition, the election administrator will send a written notice to the petition submitter, stating whether the petition form was approved or rejected. If approved, 15 percent of registered voters must sign the petition, stating they want the initiative put on the ballot.
"It's a big process," Mayer Lossing said. "But if we aim for November 2005, we'd have plenty of time to gather support and get the process going."
According to Hansen, state law says that cities and counties can raise taxes by one half the rate of inflation for the prior three years without asking voters for their approval. However, if voters were to approve a tax levy to support the Heritage Center that increase would not effect the tax cap for the city.
Chere Jiusto, executive director of the Helena-based Montana Preservation Alliance - an organization dedicated to preserving the state's historical places and cultural heritage - said several historic buildings across the state are publicly owned and operated. She believes putting the Heritage Center on the ballot could be a benefit to both the building and the community.
"It really becomes a legacy for the community, that they have this asset," she said. "With careful management of the building, it remains something that belongs to the community. There's so many intangible rewards the city could gain from keeping the building."
The city is paying for the Heritage Center's upkeep and utility bills, spending money it says it does not have. The center's bills are estimated at $4,000, and it only brings in $3,000 in revenue per month. Mayer Lossing said if the council chooses to allow the building to go to a public vote, the community would have to find a way to support the building financially until next year.
"We'll need to get together with the city and different groups and organizations within the community to raise some money and get the funds together to support the building in the meantime," she said.
Mayer Lossing said she's confident that if given the opportunity, the community will come together to support the Heritage Center.
"This needs to be a strong grass-roots effort. We really need the community's involvement and input on this," she said. "This building can only be measured in a community pride sense, not a monetary one."