Missoula Council rejects suggested cuts, presses ahead with “status quo” spending

Posted at 5:13 PM, Aug 22, 2018
and last updated 2018-08-22 19:13:22-04

MISSOULA – The Missoula City Council wrestles over budget philosophy, but it’s not stopping the council from proceeding with a "hold the line" plan for next year which needs a property tax increase to balance the books.

Mayor John Engen has proposed that the city take several steps to balance the budget after Missoula was surprised by property devaluations from the state. 

Engen’s suggestions include tapping Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s Tax Increment Financing (TIF) funds for a one-time remittance of $2.7 million, declining requested upgrades in employees and programs and a 3.8 percent bump in property taxes.

Staff told the council without those steps, taxes would skyrocket if the city spent everything requested.

"The total tax increase would be 11.7 percent. And that would also account for the MRA remittance," said City of Missoula Chief Administrative Officer Dale Bickell.

"Our home is paid for and we’re still paying eight-thousand dollars to live in our own home. And you want to raise our taxes," said a Grant Creek Road resident at the meeting.

In fact, the Mayor’s Office is pointing out the city actually claims less than a third of local property taxes, with shares going to schools, Missoula County and others.

"I don’t think anyone in any of those jurisdictions if it were there preference would be in the business of raising property taxes," Engen said. "But that’s the business we’re in if we want to continue to deliver service."

"Ultimately I think that we’ve reached a point of reckoning," said Missoula City Councilman Jesse Ramos. "We have a lot of folks in the community that have come forward saying they want to separate ‘needs’ from ‘wants’. There’s people being taxed out of their homes. And I’m not saying any of these are going to pass but I just think that it’s important to discuss them and bring them up." 

Ramos put forward his own budget recommendations, totaling over $3.2 million, with big cuts aimed at Parks and Rec, Arts Missoula, Missoula in Motion and employee insurance and other funds.

"While council members said they appreciate Ramos’ suggestions it really came down to a question of these programs being a worthwhile investment for the city."

Speakers defended the programs on Ramos’ list, saying things like parks help Missoula’s livability and keep the city viable.

"So I think it’s an awfully good investment in jobs and business," said Missoula County Parks and Recreation Director Donna Gaukler. "Splash Montana also performs a really important economic role, bringing citizens from a 2-hundred mile radius including major swim meets."

"I think that local government has the opportunity to, on some level, equalize the playing field and serve all of our constituents," said Missoula City Councilwoman Heidi West.

"I will not be supporting these cuts because they disproportionately effect elderly, children and low income people," said Missoula City Councilwoman Stacie Anderson. 

"They’re the ones that can’t afford the tax increases," Ramos said. "They’re the ones that are emailing us. They’re the ones that are saying they can’t afford these services. I love all the head shaking, it’s very fun. But anyways, they are the ones that are emailing us. They’re the ones that are calling us. They’re the ones that are coming to my house crying. They’re the ones, the single moms that cannot afford these tax increases. It’s the rich people that love them all. The rich people can come and go to all the parks. They love it! It’s like a country club."

At the end of the two-hour discussion, Ramos stood alone with the rest of the Budget Committee shooting down his suggestions. That sends the entire budget to the full council, with a public hearing, on Monday night.