By Sherry Devlin/Missoula Current
Intent on “not setting up anyone for failure,” Missoula Mayor John Engen pulled a $12,500 request to help finance a workforce study from Monday night’s City Council agenda.
Whether it returns will depend on the answers to several questions he’ll ask city staff and the Missoula Economic Partnership, which is leading the investigation into local workforce shortfalls.
The study carries a $62,000 price tag, to be paid with a $25,000 state Department of Commerce grant, and equal $12,500 contributions from the city, Missoula County and MEP.
Last week, the City Council’s Administration and Finance Committee approved the city’s contribution and sent the request to the full council, but not without grumbling about the unexpected spending.
Ward 6 councilwoman Michelle Cares voted against the request, saying the $100,000 the city already pays MEP each year should be enough to conduct the study and pay the city’s contribution to administrative costs.
Other council members asked why they were taking money from the city’s contingency fund when they’re already deep into work on the fiscal 2018 budget. Why not include the study in next year’s budget? they asked.
There were enough questions, in fact, that Engen used his mayoral discretion to pull the funding request from Monday night’s agenda.
“I wanted to make sure we had our ducks in a row,” he said following the meeting. Engen is on the Missoula Economic Partnership’s governing board.
“We have a responsibility, as MEP, to improve our communication with council to let them know what we are doing with our program dollars,” he said. “We must answer their concerns.”
Engen said he’ll talk with city staff members to explore the advisability of using contingency funds for the $12,500 versus adding the request to the 2018 budget.
Then he’ll talk with MEP CEO James Grunke and his staff about whether the funds could come from the city’s existing $100,000 annual appropriation to the economic development entity.
Grunke was not at Monday night’s meeting, but in the past has said workforce shortages and skill levels are the No. 1 complaint he receives from local businesses.
The workforce study, to be conducted by Thomas P. Miller & Associates, which did a similar study for the city of Billings, will allow MEP to write a strategic plan to address workforce development in Missoula, according to Grunke.
The economic partnership is participating in a simultaneous survey of Missoula’s housing needs. That effort is being led by the Missoula Organization of Realtors.
Combined, the studies and resulting action plans should allow the city to attract the skilled workers that area businesses need to expand and thrive, Grunke said.
For now, though, the city’s contribution to the workforce study is not happening. If it returns – and when and how – will be determined by the mayor, who said any new request will be a “do-over” that begins the council’s approval process anew.
Sherry Devlin is a longtime Missoula journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.