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Missoula council adopts fee increases for parks and rec; avoids tax increase

After not raising recreational fees last year, the Missoula City Council on Monday approved a measure to boost its fees for parks and the services it provides to the specific groups who use the city’s facilities.

The fee increases vary depending on use, and advocates suggest they’re needed to cover the rising cost of materials and wages, which are set to increase from 7% in recreation to 14% in aquatics.

“We were intentional in not raising our fees last year,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “If we did fully fund parks and recreation, we would have to raise taxes across the city for everyone who lives here.”

The fee increases passed on an 8-3 vote.

While those in support were reluctant to raise fees, they also noted the overall impacts not raising fees would have on the city’s budget. If fees don’t increase, city taxes could increase over time. To avoid that, the city could also decrease the maintenance of its facilities or pare back its recreational offerings.

None of those options are palpable and raising the user fees represented the most equitable way to approach the challenge, according to Mayor John Engen.

“These facilities are used by specific groups who charge their members, generally speaking, and then pay fees to the city,” he said. “Many of these user groups have specific demands. They are asking us for a higher level of service, and in order to achieve that higher level of service, we’re asking to recover some of that cost.”

In some cases, user fees represent the bulk of a facility’s operating costs. At the aquatics center, for example, just 12% of the funding is provided by the city’s general fund while 84% comes from user fees.

The city hasn’t increased user fees since 2019, according to park officials.

Advocates of the fee increases also note that the public has invested millions of dollars to develop and maintain the city’s recreational facilities, including a $42 million general obligation bond to develop Fort Missoula Regional Park.

That investment represents a large public subsidy, and supporters of the fee increases believe the specific user groups – not the general public – should now pay for the activities that occur on those facilities.

“This is what local government does, it tries to provide more service than it has money for,” said council member Gwen Jones. “There are many people who do not use a lot of the facilities listed in these increases, and there are some who use them on a regular basis. I think it’s fair to have users pay their way when they’re using the parks in a different way.”

But not all council members agreed with the fee increases, including Daniel Carlino, who urged the city to fully fund parks and recreation from its general fund.

While city officials said that would rob from other vital city services and could force a tax increase on the general public, Carlino suggested it was the fee increases that weren’t equitable.

“Instead of increasing these fees in such a large portion, we could work to attract more teams, we could more evenly distribute the fee increases among all sports, or we could fully fund parks and rec in the general fund,” he said. “I believe we could fund parks and rec in a more equitable way.”

Engen argued the fee increases were equitable given the public’s multi-million investment to provide the facilities to begin with. He also described the city’s general fund as finite.

“It’s controlled by mill levy values and caps placed on that levy by the Montana Legislature,” he said. “If you’re inclined to raise taxes, you’ll be bumping up against the cap.”