City Council invests in social programs, housing; blocks more police cuts

The final FY21 budget, adopted on a 9-3 vote, includes a $500,000 investment into a mobile crisis unit. The impact of new programs on future city budgets – and the cost to those who pay local property taxes – remained unclear on Monday. (Missoula Current file photo)

Editors note: This story has been updated to reflect a correction. The .23% in taxes and levies was initially reported as an increase. It is actually a decrease in taxes in levies.

The Missoula City Council on Monday concluded one of its most contentious budget seasons in recent memory after placing millions of dollars in new expenditures into subsidized housing and the makings of a social safety net.

The final FY21 budget, adopted on a 9-3 vote, also included a $500,000 investment into a mobile crisis unit. The impact of the new programs on future city budgets – and the cost to local taxpayers – remained unclear on Monday.

“It may not be a perfect budget, but I think we’ve got things in the right place,” said council member Gwen Jones. “Next year we’ll take it one step further. This is a long game.”

After an hours-long hearing, several last-minute expenses were added to the budget, including $114,000 in additional funding to pay for an expanded mobile crisis unit, bringing the city’s contribution to nearly $200,000.

The final budget also included several million dollars to fund a range of subsidized housing efforts, along with homeless outreach and emergency shelter. The lack of state and federal investment into certain social needs were “percolating down to the lower level” more than ever before, prompting local taxpayers to pick up the tab, several council members said.

Through the cuts, additions and alterations, most council members called the final budget a good fit for a complex time and its wide-ranging views.

“There has been a mass of emails on all sides, and there has been no clear consensus in our community,” said council member Stacey Anderson. “Missoula deserves and demands to have a well trained, thoughtful and equipped police department. It also deserves and demands to have investments in housing, social services and social justice. No one budget is going to do it all.”

Before the final hearing, the council removed $122,000 in funding once earmarked for the police department to fund officer training and transportation. The council on Monday resisted a push by Ward 6 council member Julie Merritt to cut an officer assigned to the downtown district.

Mayor John Engen summarized the FY21 budget as an “investment in people.” According to city documents, the funded requests account to a .23% decrease in taxes and levies applied to those who pay property taxes.

“I continue to think this budget reflects many values in investment in human beings, some of the most vulnerable in our community, as well as the community’s interest in public safety through many of our departments, including the Missoula Police Department,” Engen said.

Up until Monday night, the budget included $75,000 to fund the mobile crisis unit on a 10-month trial basis. That was the city’s match to what the county had proposed, along with a grant earmarked for the cause.

Before the budget was adopted, however, members of the council injected $114,000 more into the program, bringing the total city and county investment to nearly $500,000 when applied to a matching grant.

“I struggled to some extent over the representation that our city budget is a police budget versus an Office of Housing and Community Development scenario,” said Heidi West, who lobbied for police cuts last week. “There’s so much more to our budget rather than these two issues, and they’re not in direct opposition to each other.”

The millions of dollars in added investment into housing, social programs and crisis intervention wasn’t enough for some callers, who suggested the city was awash in “pervasive over-policing.”

Several callers spoke multiple times and wanted the city to cut protective gear from the police department, along with a forensic investigator. That money should be redistributed to build a “social safety net,” they contended.

Listening through it all, members of the council said they’d heard deeply from both sides of the issue over the past few months. The final budget involved more than pitting one funding desire against the other.

“I believe this budget gets us significantly closer to reflecting the values of our community,” said council member Mirtha Becerra, speaking to comments on both sides of the issue. “This budget is not about winners or losers. It’s about balance.”

Other initial funding requests were either reduced or not funded in the final budget. The fire department’s request for an alternative response unit for $101,000 also went unfunded. That would have helped the department respond to low level calls with smaller equipment during periods of high call volume, thus freeing heavier fire units to respond to more urgent calls and saving taxpayers as a result.

Around $75,000 for a rapid intervention team for the fire department was also axed. The city instead provided $114,000 for a mental health program manager and tucked it within the fire department budget as part of the mobile crisis unit.

Other social efforts received funding at the expense of public services. One of them included $92,000 to Parks and Recreation to work in collaboration with Missoula County Public Schools to pilot a social program at Lowell School.

The city also invested $750,000 into the newly established Affordable Housing Trust Fund.

“It’s the largest general fund investment to address a community need during my time on council,” said council member Bryan von Lossberg. “It’s indicative of a direction we’re headed. When you look at additional assets that will be coming in to that fund, as well as the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s contribution to affordable housing work, we’re well beyond the $1 million mark.”

Council members Jesse Ramos, Sandra Vasecka and John Contos voted in opposition to the budget. They summarized their opposition to a difference in opinion on the role of local government.

“I know myself and various council members will work with me on various things that do need to be addressed in the community over time,” said Ramos. “They can’t be addressed over night.”