Explainer: what are Helena's special districts?

City of Helena neighborhood
Posted at 10:21 AM, Oct 13, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-16 10:37:05-04

HELENA — Helena property owners recently received a letter in the mail about the city’s Landfill Monitoring District, a special district created to fund monitoring of the old city landfill under Centennial Park. This letter prompted some MTN viewers to wonder what exactly are special districts? We went to the expert, Helena city attorney Rebecca Dockter, to find out.

“They are a local government unit that is created according to the law for a limited service,” Dockter said of special districts.

You can find that statute providing for special districts in the Montana Code Annotated.

Two examples of special districts in Helena are the Urban Forestry District and the Landfill Monitoring District.

The Urban Forestry District was created to care for the more than 11,000 trees throughout the city, plant new trees and clean up after storms. This district covers the entire city of Helena.

The Landfill Monitoring District also covers the entire city.

Funding for the services provided in these districts comes from fees assessed for residential and business properties within the district.

“Then, we have a specific source of funds that go to that specific service,” Dockter said.

Currently, residential property owners within the Landfill Monitoring District pay $7.23 per year per parcel owned, while businesses pay anything from $18.08 to $150.70 per year. Property owners within the Urban Forestry District pay $39 per year per parcel owned.

Rather than taking money from the general fund to use for services provided through special districts, these assessed fees specifically fund the services provided within the special district.

“It’s a way for us to ensure, as a city government, that there is money always set aside for that specific purpose,” Dockter said. “General fund monies are used for many services across the city.”

In Helena, special districts are created by the city commission, and they are required by law to be reviewed every 13 years. Both the creation and review processes include opportunities for the public to weigh in.

The Urban Forestry District’s review process was completed and the district renewed on Aug. 21. The Landfill Monitoring District is currently undergoing the review process, and the public protest period is open until November 21. The city commission will hold a public hearing about renewing the Landfill Monitoring District on Dec. 18.

While the Urban Forestry and Landfill Monitoring districts cover the entire city of Helena, special districts can just cover a portion of the city. For example, Dockter said the idea of a sidewalk district for just a part of the city has been raised.

“There have been conversations about a sidewalk special district, where in certain areas the sidewalk has to be created or maintained,” Dockter said. “And (the city would) create a special district just for those areas within that special district, but that hasn’t been done yet.”

While the city commission creates special districts, residents can also petition the city to create one if there is something specific they want funded.