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Missoula County closes in on final FY21 budget with little new spending

Missoula County Courthouse
Posted at 6:11 PM, Sep 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-03 20:11:25-04

MISSOULA — Missoula County’s final budget is nearing adoption and unless it changes between this week and next, it will include a minimal increase of around $1 million, much of it to cover increasing service costs and a handful of new initiatives.

The budget is set for adoption on Sept. 8. The city adopted its budget on Monday, and while it included no tax increase to the general fund, it did include an increase in assessments for the park and road district.

This budget cycle, county commissioners focused on “core values” and asked departments to collaborate on essential needs going into the new fiscal year. They also considered the pandemic and its economic impacts on many taxpayers.

“This is an economically tough time for a lot of people and it was really important to us not just to make sure our values were exercised and reflected in this budget, and to make sure we continue to deliver a high level of service and move ourselves forward, but that we don’t put an undue burden on people who are having a tough time,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “We’re proud we’ve been able to keep these costs as low as we have.”

The county’s proposed final budget, which generated far less scrutiny than the city’s budget, includes just over $170 million in property taxes, a figure that’s based off certified taxable values and cash savings from previous years. The new FY21 budget proposed around $166 million in expenditures.

It represents an increase of around $1.1 million over the FY20 budget.

“There’s a lot more work to be done in Missoula County, whether it addresses the deferred maintenance of our transportation infrastructure or housing,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “In this budget, we are positioning ourselves well to emerge from the economic crises we’re facing and the community needs we hear. But that’s not to say there aren’t other things out there we’d like to address in the future.”

Heading into the budgeting season, commissioners declined to place a proposed general obligation bond on the November ballot. That was requested by various user groups at the county fairgrounds to fund improvements, though commissioners told them the timing was off given the pandemic and its impacts.

And while the county was anticipating around $4.7 million in newly taxable properties this year, it received far less after property owners and larger centrally assessed properties protested to the state.

“That gobbled up over $2 million of that increase,” said Andrew Czorny, the county’s chief financial officer. “That limited what we could distribute. The commission was very aware of that and made every reduction possible while working to deliver the services people expect.”

Czorny said this year’s budgetary increase stemmed from a number of items. Among them, around 44%, or $496,000, represented ongoing expenses such as employee wages and utility costs. One time costs consumed $539,276 of the increase, or roughly 48%, which includes payments related to grants and capital improvement projects.

The county also anticipates around $3.4 million in COVID related costs in the new fiscal budget, including county testing and contact tracing, and emergency operations at the non-congregate shelter, which the city purchased earlier this year.

The COVID-related operations don’t amount to a tax increase but should be reimbursed by the state and federal government. But the timing of those reimbursements will be key moving forward, commissioners said.

“We’ve made our case effectively known to the state of Montana that it’s critical that we have a timely turnout for our costs related to COVID,” Strohmaier said. “It would be a challenge related from a cash flow point if there was a protracted period of time between when we’re incurring cost to address the pandemic and getting reimbursement from the federal government.”

The proposed final budget would mean an estimated property tax increase of $14.36 on a $350,000 home, or $1.20 a month.