-Martin Kidston reporting for the Missoula Current
MISSOULA: The executive budget released Wednesday by Missoula Mayor John Engen adds six police officers to the city’s force, bolsters Municipal Court and invests in the new housing policy, including winter shelter for homeless residents.
“Fundamentally, we’re really working to address the stuff we’re hearing up front, which is housing and streets, and trying to balance that on the property tax concern,” Engen said after Wednesday’s presentation. “We have to find that balance.”
The mayor’s preliminary budget, issued each year ahead of budget season, looks heavily toward general city services, including $7.6 million for street and sidewalk projects and $5.9 million for improvements to the water system.
The final budget will hinge on the certified taxable values released by the Department of Revenue in August. Last year’s figure came in lower than expected, though Engen is optimistic about this year’s anticipated figures.
“We’re hoping for a good growth number, and we hope that growth in base will temper the need for an increase,” he said.
“The good news is that Fiscal Year 2019 was a successful year for revenues and expenses,” he added. “We’re performing well within our approved budget authority, adding to our fund balance, and we’ll begin the fiscal year in a strong position.”
Last year’s budget looked to add three police officers, though that proposal was deferred after state valuations came in lower than expected. In Fiscal Year 2020, Engen looks to hire those three offers and add three more to help cover the city, including areas recently annexed west of Reserve Street.
“Increasing calls for service and our expanded jurisdiction require additional investment in policing and this budget makes that investment,” Engen said. “Public safety is a fundamental responsibility of local government.”
The mayor’s budget adds staff to a number of departments, including a program specialist for climate and energy conservation, a deputy court manager for Municipal Court, and a deputy attorney in the City Attorney’s Office.
It also would add a business manager at Public Works, an engineer at Development Services, and fund five maintenance employees for street and traffic services, along with wider system maintenance.
“We made important organizational changes this year to our Public Works department,” Engen said. “This budget builds on that organizational reform and invests heavily in staff and materials to improve our transportation system.”
The budget also adds light-duty plow vehicles to address winter conditions and make efforts to “dramatically improve our response in residential areas when the snow falls.”
The City Council’s Budget Committee will meet each week through July and portions of August to hear from specific departments about their budget requests. The state is expected to release its certified taxable values in early August – a figure that can heavily sway municipal budgets across the state.
Last year’s values came in far lower than expected, prompting the city and county to lean on property owners for basic services. But Engen believes this year’s figures will be in line with what’s projected.
He plans to present a final budget to the City Council once the state releases its certified tax values.
“We’ve prepared this budget while recognizing a clear community sensitivity around the property tax investments our residents pay to support a thriving city,” he said. “We’re striking a balance between increasing demands for service, the increasing costs of those services, and our collective ability to pay for those services.”