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Local governments unsure about budgetary impacts from COVID-19

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Posted at 7:47 AM, Apr 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-01 09:59:21-04

MISSOULA — While all our heads are swimming with not only the prospect of the pandemic but also the personal financial costs, there are also multi-million dollar questions swirling over how local governments will cope as they draw up next year's spending plans.

Many people are trying to figure out how to pay the rent or the mortgage not that April has begun, let alone what next month brings. That problem is similar -- although greatly magnified for local governments -- in Western Montana, who are right at that time of the year when they start drawing up the new budgets.

And from what MTN News has been able to tell, no one has a handle on how things are going to pencil out, although there are assurances critical services will continue.

"There are all sorts of implications to this. Some of which are going to be obvious and some that we aren't going to see for some time," Missoula Mayor John Engen said.

"Those services are a foundation for all of economic and cultural life. And there's no way we're going to sacrifice those," explained Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick,. "Also, we're super sensitive about the huge economic shift that has just taken place."

During one of the recent press conferences, Slotnick and Engen offered assurances about current services. But where a few weeks ago Montana's booming economy painted a rosy budget outlook, now there's uncertainty.

"And we're going, a really radical shift from two weeks ago, three weeks ago, feeling that we're in a time of relative prosperity," Slotnick told MTN News. "How can we invest in the future? To right now where we're still reeling and trying to figure out, as the mayor said, what are the implications? We don't even know yet."

It's the same in the smaller counties. Ravalli County leaders are just focused on the immediate crisis, with detailed budget crunching still to come.

"The budget comes from, you know, the expenditure side but also with property taxes coming up on the revenue side and how that's going to impact that, Ravalli County Commissioner Jeff Burrows explained. "But right now, budgetarily, we are still in a good situation and the expenditures, as far as preventing and managing this situation."

No one is talking tax relief, or program cuts yet and while the dollars might be short determination isn't.

"We are always as conservative as we can be," Engen said. And I think we'll be extra conservative this year."

"But there's no way we're going to sacrifice on the services that people absolutely depend on," Slotnick explained. "And that a real high functioning society depends on."

A lot of the critical information that county officials will need for budgets in the weeks ahead will be coming from the State of Montana and those revenue projections.