MISSOULA - Voters in Missoula will have a number of funding issues to consider on November's ballot, including a possible bond to improve the fairgrounds and a levy to support crisis services across the city, from mobile support to sheltering the homeless.
The request, floated by a coalition of community members and organizations, received the support of the Missoula City Council's Committee of the Whole on a 9-1 vote on Wednesday. In doing so, they're urging Missoula County commissioners to place the permanent levy on the ballot for voters to consider in November.
“We were able to start programs we've needed for a long time but were never able to pull out of our general fund,” said council member Gwen Jones. “If we don't have funding for these programs, we're going back to zero.”
During the pandemic, the city and county both received funding through the American Rescue Plan and CARES acts and directed millions of dollars to start a number of programs aimed at crisis intervention, domestic violence, addiction and homeless services, among other programs.
The efforts have included a Temporary Safe Outdoor Space (TSOS) and a sanctioned homeless camp. Local governments also invested in a winter shelter, helped fund operations at the Poverello, and contributed to low-income housing and property acquisitions to shelter vulnerable populations.
Backers of the levy request plan to present a list of what programs permanent local funding would support.
“We've had for a couple of years now experience using federal dollars given to us to experiment with programs to impact homelessness, addiction, mental health issues, and to rework our justice system,” said levy advocate Shannon Flannagan. “Those funds are going to disappear and sunset, which means the problem will fall on the shoulders of the community more directly now. If we don't do anything, this problem won't just disappear."
Federal funding also helped create a Crisis Intervention Team, among other programs aimed at mental health. Advocates said the programs are paying off while also saving taxpayers other costs, such as jail time and visits to the emergency room.
The levy would seek up to 20 mills, which would raise roughly $5.5 million annually. Advocates said they understand the pressure the levy would place on local taxpayers. But not funding the programs would “take Missoula backwards.”
“We know that asking the commissioners to place this levy on the ballot and asking voters to approve it comes at a cost. I see every day how stretched thin people are,” said Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of the United Way of Missoula County. “But local government has very few options when it comes to generating funds. The levy is the best option we have. The cost of going backwards is too great to bear.”
Urging the county to place the levy on the ballot received general support from members of the council. But the levy will ultimately be up to voters to approve and, in doing so, reaffirm whether crisis support and homeless services remain a community priority.
“It's our responsibility to allow that decision space. This is an example of how our system works,” said council member Heidi West. “It's not proper for us to stand between citizens engaging directly with their government and their right to vote.”
Council member Sandra Vasecka agreed that the humanitarian programs launched with federal funding have provided an important service. However, she said, taxpayers are already stretched thin.
The city and county have hinted strongly at a significant tax increase this year to cover essential services. The county will also consider placing a $19 million bond on the November ballot to pay for additional improvements at the fairgrounds.
Voters in June also approved a levy to increase funding for Missoula Aging Services. Placing another levy on the ballot in addition to the tax increase and other funding requests is asking taxpayers for a lot, Vasecka said.
“When you have a household budget and have a priority, you have to shift things around. You can't just go and ask for money,” she said. “I think this is an additional burden to taxpayers. We should do some creative funding to make this allowable in our budget.”
Council members have suggested the city's general fund isn't capable of picking up the cost of the programs without additional public support. Council member Daniel Carlino suggested the city cut $5 million from law enforcement to pay for the services considered in the levy.
“Rather than increasing property taxes to make this happen, I'd rather see this come from the police department and sheriff's department budgets,” said Carlino, who has consistently opposed funding for police and security. “If we're going to keep increasing the police and sheriff's budgets by such extreme amounts, that should be placed on the ballot, too.”
Carlino's suggestion didn't win wide support from most members of the council, who described his bid to cut funding from law enforcement to fund homeless services was irresponsible at best.
“This levy is a pretty significant amount of money and to just say willy-nilly, 'Take it out of the police budget,' I mean, we have a basic duty to provide public safety to our community,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “That's the basic charge of what a municipal government is supposed to do. Because people are dropping the ball at other levels of government, we're the bottom rung. We're the most basic level of service.”
Missoula County commissioners opened their public hearing regarding the levy last week and will hold it open until August 4, at which point they'll vote on whether to present the levy to voters.
Going backwards just doesn't seem acceptable,” said Joyce Dombrouski, CEO of Providence St. Patrick Hospital. “It's not the way we want to live, and it's not the way we want people to live. We'd like to extend and think through how to use and be good stewards of this resource should this levy pass to make sure we are, in fact, on the prevention side on all that we can be.”