Downtown group asks for $125K in TIF funds for tree maintenance

The Downtown Development Partnership voted during their Feb. 24 meeting to recommend approval of a request for up to $125,000 in tax increment financing funds over five years for tree trimming and maintenance downtown.

The request from the Great Falls Business Improvement District would allow the BID to better maintain trees and replace any that are deemed unhealthy.

Under city code, property owners are responsible for maintain trees or vegetation in the boulevard or landscaping sections that adjoin their premises, but the service is provided to those in the BID since they pay an additional annual assessment.

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The BID is asking for $25,000 annually for five years for a total of $125,000 of downtown tax increment financing funds for 2021-2026.

Joan Redeen of the BID said that by using TIF funds, they can also trim and maintain trees outside of their boundary and into the Downtown Master Plan boundary, which is a bit larger.

Redeen said the BID has budgeted about $15,000 annually for tree work out of their funding, which comes from an annual assessment on property owners within the district.

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The BID last asked for, and received, TIF funding for tree work in 2009, for about $15,000, and replaced more than 10 percent of trees in their boundaries that year, Redeen said.

City staff are recommending approval of the funds, though tree maintenance isn’t the traditional infrastructure project, the Great Falls Downtown Urban Renewal Plan allows TIF funds to be used to “ensure streetscape improvements that are designed to enhance pedestrian safety and pleasure by providing space for pedestrian needs and uses,” according to the city staff report.

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Staff found that the project “is necessary to maintain the aesthetics of the streetscape that the City has worked hard to build upon. If the streetscape were to deteriorate, the chance for blight within the downtown district would increase as time goes on” and “maintenance of the boulevard trees will encourage the district’s development in the sense that the converse will not encourage the district’s development. Trimming these trees so that safe passage for pedestrians meets a special need to the community. If there are any unhealthy trees in the district, replacing them will help beautify the district.”

The city’s outside legal counsel has also deemed the project eligible for TIF funds.

The downtown TIF fund has a current balance of $1,529,306 and even with the planned use of the downtown TIF funds to pay the debt service on the Civic Center repair project, there will be plenty left for the tree trimming project, according to city staff.

During the DDP meeting, Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority said that there is significant research demonstrating the positive impact of urban forestry on economic development.

He suggested considering a follow-on project of improved lighting in the downtown core.

The TIF request for trees will go to the City Commission for final approval.