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Missoula Public Works struggles to cover costs as city grows, material prices increase

Missoula Public Works
Posted at 12:04 PM, Aug 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-18 14:04:43-04

MISSOULA — As Missoula adds more miles of roads, pipes, and power lines to accommodate new growth, the cost of maintaining services is pushing Public Works to seek new additions in its Fiscal Year 2022 budget.

It’s also seeking revenue to keep up with the cost of materials and labor and do so at a time when the state Legislature has repealed a new tool to help cover the mounting expenses – that being the $0.02 local option gas tax.

“Like everyone, we’re seeing significant inflation. This is affecting the cost of materials, and that’s affecting our projects,” Public Works Director Jeremy Keene told members of the City Council on Wednesday. “We have a tight labor force, and we have a duty to act on the environment. This isn’t something we can kick down the road.”

Public Works and Mobility rolled out its proposed FY22 budget on Wednesday, one that claims around $80 million in revenue and expenses. Most of those revenues – 37% or $30 million – are generated by charges for fees and services while grants and loans make up around 19%, or around $15 million.

This year’s larger budgetary requests include $76,000 for a new transportation planner to help move the city’s list of plans to construction. It’s also seeking $3.8 million for roadway improvements and $2.1 million for sidewalks and mobility, which includes bicycle facilities, transit facilities, and neighborhood greenways.

Personnel costs, sidewalk replacement, utilities, and water mains also add to the budget. In summary, Keene said, Public Works has more to take care of as Missoula grows.

“We’re doing all this as we’re growing. We have more stuff to take care of and more road miles as we create new neighborhoods,” Keene said. “If we’re smart, we grow our tax base with us. As that growth happens, it requires smart land-use planning and density to cover the cost of the new infrastructure.”

Of the department’s $80 million expenditures, 53% or $41 million goes toward capital costs while personnel make up 20%, or around $16.2 million. Supplies account for $2.5 million with debt services representing around $8.5 million.

The City Council will consider a number of rate increases this fiscal year to help cover the growing cost of maintaining and providing service. Public Works looks to replace around 1% of the city’s water mains each year, and it aims to triple the number of multi-model trips by 2045, which would cut single-occupancy trips by 50%.

Achieving that goal would save taxpayers money down the road, Keene said.

“This is an investment in multi-model infrastructure. It makes sense from an environmental standpoint as well as a fiscal standpoint,” he said. “It’s less expensive to provide this multi-model infrastructure. We won’t ever have enough money to build streets for everyone to drive a car all the time for their trips.”

Outside federal funding, bonds and loans, the department’s budget is buoyed by a number of fees, including $3.5 million in impact fees and $1.6 million in statewide gas taxes. The Legislature nixed the city’s local option gas tax this year, which would have provided more than $300,000 in additional revenue for transportation needs.

The budget also receives around $1.5 million in development fees, and Keene said Public Works plans to support the construction of 600 new housing units annually – a figure that’s needed to keep pace with current growth projections.

“We’ll do that by helping leverage city land, a lot of which Public Works control. The other way is through supportive projects where we’re providing infrastructure to help support that construction,” Keene said. “We’re also working through our regulations to make sure our process is as efficient as possible to get those projects through the system and off to construction.”

Keene pushed back on the budget’s opponents – and a number of municipal candidates claiming to be fiscal hawks – who claim the city has a “spending problem.”

“We have to ask you each year to increase our budget so we can continue to provide the same level of service as our taxpayers expect,” Keene said. “If you think we just have a spending problem, all I can say is that failure to act now is going to cost more later. Our budget reflects what we need to do now and in the near future to maintain that level of service.”