With the budgeting season at hand, Missoula Mayor John Engen on Wednesday unveiled his key priorities for Fiscal Year 2022, including housing, infrastructure, economic health and equity.
The City Council will use the priorities when allocating funding to various city programs and departments over the next year. Many of the goals stated in this year’s priority list were drawn from recent community surveys, which named housing as a top priority.
“We all know housing is an issue,” Engen said. “Our goals continue to address that in the most practical ways we can.”
While the budgeting process is fluid and ever changing, efforts on the housing front touch on a number of strategies in pursuit of affordability. Among them, Engen said the city will continue to purchase land and partner with the private sector on new development.
In theory, owning the land helps lower development costs, and it gives the city leverage in the outcome of the final product. The city has purchased several parcels in recent years, including the Sleepy Inn on West Broadway and several acres on Scott Street, where a housing project is in development.
“Our hope is you’ll see more of that with land that’s currently in city ownership and the success we’re seeing at Scott Street,” Engen said, adding that the city will also address regulations around development.
“The most glaring disconnect is between our growth policy as expressed in our land-use map, and our zoning designations that are part of our zoning ordinance,” Engen said. “They don’t align, and that creates tension, unpredictability and stress for the building community, for residents and for decision makers.”
The new fiscal budget will also continue investing in public safety and wellness, including police training, childcare and crisis intervention. The city last year launched a new mobile crisis unit on a trial basis.
Engen said Wednesday the city must now look at ways to expand such programs.
“We’ll continue investing in programs that serve our most vulnerable residents, including the creation of a homeless navigation center and the expansion of our mobile support team,” Engen said. “Rather than present you piecemeal programs we’re supporting, we want to demonstrate a broad investment that creates collective impact in this arena and also enhances existing programs.”
The city will also continue striving for carbon neutrality and tackle infrastructure projects it can complete in the next fiscal year. That includes work in the great Mullan area, the removal and restoration of Rattlesnake dam, trail improvements and neighborhood traffic management.
Investing in the city itself is also a budget priority, Engen said, naming communication as an area needing improvement.
“Mainstream media has declined or eroded and isn’t a source of information for many of the folks we serve anymore,” Engen said. “There are a number of solutions out there. What we’re doing today is outmoded and doesn’t contemplate the media environment we’re in now. We need to modernize our approach to all of this.”
Unlike last budgeting seasons, the city will receive around $7 million from the American Rescue Plan, along with another $7 million next year. As of now, Engen said, the parameters around where and how that revenue can be spent remain uncertain.
The city is reviewing its options and intends to stretch the funding as far as it can without duplicating efforts with other recipients, Engen said.
“The internal team has been looking at federal guidance, which has been relatively slow to hit the ground and continues to evolve,” Engen said. “That internal team will provide some advice to the managing team around those sideboards, and they’ll be looking for ways to leverage those dollars, so this one-time money has significant impact one time and if possible, has ongoing impact.”
Engen believes the sideboards, as currently understood, will permit the city to invest ARPA funding toward utilities, such as water and sewer. It could also be directed toward public safety, personnel, salaries and infrastructure.
He said the revenue may also be critical to various city programs, including new pilot programs like the mobile support team.
“By necessity, we’re entering into lines of business we have never been in before,” he said. “All those pieces are coming together, and we’ll have a much clearer picture here over the next couple of weeks.
An executive budget letter is expected in July.