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No new taxes: Missoula’s FY21 budget eyes investments in housing, roads, police and equity

Downtown Missoula Aerial
Posted at 8:30 AM, Jul 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-09 15:50:30-04

MISSOULA — Missoula Mayor John Engen released his annual budget outline for the new fiscal year on Wednesday, calling it a strategic investment in community values based on infrastructure, housing, public safety and social equity.

The Montana Department of Revenue has not yet released this year’s taxable values, leaving the proposed budget “light on numbers and heavy on ideas.”

Still, Engen said the proposal won’t increase property taxes but rather, will shift funding to areas based on the city’s strategic goals and community values.

“A global pandemic has derailed the world economy, and the city of Missoula and the local community are not insulated from that disruption,” Engen said. “We will not increase city property taxes to fund municipal operations in 2021.”

As proposed, the city’s general fund will grow by around $1.7 million, largely due to employee wages, union contracts and inflationary costs. Engen said current revenue projections will cover those baseline increases without a bump in property taxes.

“Our revenue projections are just that,” Engen said. “We won’t have certified taxable values from the Department of Revenue until the first week of August, and further reimbursements to local government through the CARES Act remain a mystery. But our revenue guesses are educated and conservative.”

Combined requests from the city’s various departments would cost $5 million more than the current budget allows, making it likely that not all requests will be approved in the next fiscal year, Engen said.

Rather, the city has adopted a new strategic framework, through which all funding requests will be measured. Approved requests must move the city toward a unified vision based on existing city goals including growth, social equity, safety and wellness.

As proposed, the budget would invest $2.8 million on general transportation infrastructure and $6.4 million on Mullan Road as part of the larger $25 million upgrade taking place west of Reserve Street.

Other capital improvements eyed in the budget include $5.4 million for the city’s water system and $3.3 million on wastewater and storm water improvements.

The budget also looks to invest in issues around social equity, something Engen spoke to at length when unveiling his proposal. That includes $5 million on park and trail improvements, $75,000 to support a behavioral health mobile crisis unit, funding for climate change, and $750,000 to seed the new affordable housing trust fund.

That initial housing investment from the city’s general fund will be combined with a $1 million annual commitment from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency.

“I think we’ve reorganized our social equity components here and brought them to the floor and given them greater emphasis,” Engen said.

While recent demonstrations in downtown Missoula have called on the city to defund the police department, the proposed city budget would make new investments in the department. That includes revenue for additional training around equity, protective equipment and body cameras.

Critics of the proposed investment in the police department were quick to react on Wednesday. Several dialed in to criticize the proposal, accusing the city of “ignoring” protesters looking to defund law enforcement. Engen disagreed, saying public safety remains a worthy investment.

“Despite calls for defunding law enforcement, I will propose that we invest in the women and men who swore to serve and protect our community, and despite tragic examples of abuse of power in other communities around the country, continue to serve with our residents’ best interest at heart,” Engen said.

The budgeting process will play out over the month of July and August as individual department heads present their unique budget requests. The City Council will consider those requests, though the outcome of this year’s taxable values may either pad or leave the budget slim.

Eran Pehan, director of the Office of Housing and Community Development, said funding requests will be based in part on the city’s new strategic plan, which is intended to ensure all city departments are working in sync toward a unified vision.

The framework includes safety and wellness, community design and livability, environmental quality, economic health, and organizational excellence.

“We must be intentional in our investments and targeted in the implementation efforts we undergo,” Pehan said. “We will prioritize and implement the strategic goals outlined through the annual budget process and through department work plans.”

Pehan said those plans will include action items, implementation, a timeline for completion and a clear reporting framework.

“We must create performance indicators that are based on people focused outcomes,” Pehan said, adding that projects and services will be measured by their benefit to the broader community.

The City Council looks to adopt the FY 21 budget by Aug. 24.