Affordable housing nets largest new request in city budget; no tax increase planned

Growth in the city’s property tax base and a strong ending balance will enable the Missoula City Council to adopt its Fiscal Year ’21 budget as proposed without raising taxes, city officials said Monday.

The budget includes around $61.5 million in expenditures, some of which will be scrutinized over the coming weeks. While new requests from all city departments add up to around $5 million, the proposed budget would fund just $2.1 million in new requests.

“This budget does not increase the city’s mill levy,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “We are not increasing property taxes this year through the collection of mills.”

The largest new request in next year’s budget includes $750,000 to begin filling the city’s new housing trust fund. The Missoula Redevelopment Agency also is contributing $1 million to the fund each year.

The second largest request in the FY21 budget includes $268,000 to hire two new police officers while the third largest request includes $226,000 for police training.

Some opponents of police funding, including members of the Democratic Socialists of America, have been vocal in their calls to place that revenue into social programs, not law enforcement. Others have urged the city to continue funding its police department, calling it a vital public service.

“This week was different than past weekends. There were many calls to defend the police, not defund the police,” said city council member Sandra Vasceka.

“They are already overworked, underfunded and very much under appreciated, especially today. I have absolutely no interest in defunding the police. I proudly stand behind the men and women in blue, and giving them what they need is very important to keep our society safe and to keep them safe so we can sleep in peace at night.”

The public safety budget requests also include $75,000 to establish a Mobile Crisis Response Team. That idea was presented earlier this year and both the city and the county will contribute to the program.

The initial funding will cover costs during a 10-month trial run and enable the city to collect more data.

“That data will allow us to move forward, and my hope is that we can bolster that program,” Engen said. “I would do back flips if we could handle 20% of those 911 calls from folks who are in crisis. But we need to walk before we run.”

If the program fills a need and proves successful, it will likely require permanent funding from future budgets. The Strategic Alliance for Mental Illness in Missoula also has identified other gaps in the system.

It’s there where advocates of defunding the police often point, and they’re pushing the city to redirect revenue from law enforcement to housing, addiction treatment, mental health care and other social programs.

Funding the police department and funding social programs aren’t mutually exclusive, Engen said.

“We have needs in the police department we are identifying today that keep the larger community safer,” he said. “But don’t misunderstand my support for this police request. It doesn’t negate my interest in putting numbers to programs so we can fill these gaps, and there are many in our community.”

The city will close the current fiscal year with around $7.1 million in reserves. It will apply some of that revenue to the FY21 budget and leave an ending balance of around $5.5 million.

Dale Bickell, the city’s chief administrative officer, said that leaves the city in a strong position, especially as it looks ahead to Fiscal Year 2022.

“We had really good budget performance from our departments, part of which was because of the pandemic,” said Bickell. “While we are budgeting to spend down our access cash reserves, we are also holding some of that back because we are anticipating we’ll need some of that for next year’s budget.”

City Council member Amber Sherrill said the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic will become more clear in the coming months, and those reserves may be needed down the road.

“I like that we’re putting money away for next year and have that built into the budget,” she said. “I think the full fallout from COVID, we’ll get a better idea next year. We have a reassessment of property values coming next year.”