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City, county to approach budgeting season with caution; push for mail-in primary

Posted: 10:16 AM, Mar 22, 2020
Updated: 2020-03-22 12:16:57-04
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MISSOULA — The city and county of Missoula on Friday ensured that vital services will continue as the COVID-19 pandemic plays out, though changes may be made to how certain services are delivered.

Elected officials are also making plans to promote voting by mail in the June primary, and they’re approaching the upcoming budget season with an eye of caution, sensitivity and uncertainty.

“We’ve been doing our best to over-communicate as we move through this process,” Missoula Mayor John Engen said. “As it turns out in a pandemic, there are a lot of problems to be solve, some of which have been anticipated, and some of which just surprise you.”

Engen ensured that utilities will continue to operate, including clean water and power, both of which are built with redundant systems. Access to City Hall will be limited started Monday morning, though most city services can be accessed via the Internet or over the phone.

Missoula County also is making similar changes. Commissioners will continue to conduct business, though weekly administrative meetings will be accessed by the public through a dial-in conference number.

“We are absolutely going to continue delivering services, everything from building permits to car titles,” Commissioner Josh Slotnick said. “You’re just now going to be doing it online or over the phone. We’re going to keep business moving, it’s just going to move a little differently.”

The municipal budgeting season also is set to begin, though the pandemic may take a bite out of city and county tax revenues and the services they fund. While no local figures are yet available, national experts have predicted that state and local governments are set to loose hundreds of millions of dollars as businesses are forced to close and employees are sent home.

Both local and state governments have already extended the tax deadlines to July. Figures from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services show the number of filings for unemployment insurance surging across the state.

“We closed swimming pools, and that’s a missing revenue stream,” Engen said, citing one potential impact. “There are all sorts of implications to this, some of which are going to be obvious, and some that we’re not going to see for some time.”

Engen said the city budget will receive more attention once the impacts of the pandemic are better understood. The budgeting process would typically begin next month and run though the summer.

“We’re always as conservative as we can be, and I think we’ll be extra conservative this year,” Engen said. “We have systems in place where the day to day management of processes associated with the COVID response are going to be tempered, and we can start doing some of that work in a more concentrated way. But we have yet to see.”

Slotnick said the county will place its emphasis on customary services, saying they won’t be sacrificed in the upcoming budget.

“The provision of services that we’re all accustomed to, everything that makes our society safe, predictable and reliable – those things are absolutely going to continue,” he said. “Those services are the foundation for all economic and cultural life, and there’s no way we’re going to sacrifice those.”

But Slotnick also noted the shifting economic landscape, both in Missoula County and across the state. Friday’s briefing was held downtown on a sunny Friday afternoon. While the district would be hopping with vibrancy and open businesses in normal times, it instead was a virtual ghost town.

“We’re also super sensitive about the huge economic shift that has just taken place,” Slotnick said. “Our budget season is about to begin, and we’re making a real radical shift in thinking from three weeks ago, when we were in a real time of prosperity to right now, where we’re still reeling and trying to figure out implications we don’t even know yet. But there’s no way we’re going to sacrifice on the services that people depend on.”

While much uncertainty remains, Slotnick said the county is already making plans to push for a largely mail-in June primary. He said the county is prepared to pay the postage on ballots as it urges voters to use the mailbox and avoid the polls.

“We’re going to encourage you to vote mail-in this time, and we’re going to actually pay the postage on that absentee ballot,” he said. “Doing this isn’t just for your safety, but for the safety of our election judges. Most of our election judges are over the age of 65. Do your part and lessen the load on those individuals and take advantage of our paid postage mail-in ballot and do it that way.”