The four mayoral candidates vying to move on to November's General Election faced off on Monday in their first virtual debate, where all agreed on funding the police, the need to build more housing and work to address homelessness.

But their viewpoints often varied on how the greatest issues facing Missoula should be resolved, whether it was making cuts to popular programs to reduce taxes, or serving as a public partner to private developers on the housing front.

Over the 90-minute debate, homelessness, housing and taxation dominated much of the conversation. But on the later, when asked for specific areas the candidates would cut while also pledging to grow other programs such as police and mental health, details were few.

It came down to a simple tax-and-spend argument for the three challenges, who all accused the city of “frivolous spending.”

“With all the pet projects the mayor is involved in ... that's not what you're money is supposed to be used for,” said challenger Jacob Elder. “When you pay your taxes, you're paying for a limited range of services. We've seen that the city has a lavish spending problem.”

As in year's past, this year's challengers used taxation as a banner to gain public support while painting a contrast to an incumbent they believe lacks fiscal discipline.

Challenger Greg Strandberg suggest the city had a “serious problem” when it comes to its budget and its spending priorities, a point on which challenger Shawn Knopp agreed.

“I would certainty concentrate on the essentials first, funding the police and the fire department,” he said. “I'd work on balancing the budget and trying to reduce the overall debt so we're not paying so much interest on that, so we have more money for other services. We need to stop the frivolous spending.”

Mayor John Engen suggested the candidates lacked a basic understanding of how municipal governments work in Montana. He noted the state Legislature caps any increases in mills by only half the rate of inflation, that Missoula's tax base was growing, and that Montana requires city's to adopt a balanced budget.

Deciding what to fund was a delicate balance, he added.

“We engage in the delicate balancing act that's funding the operations of the City of Missoula, and it is a balancing act and it's a challenging one, and it often brings lots of opinions to the table,” Engen said. “I am asked relentlessly for more, not less service, and I'm asked for those services to happen in critical areas that are operationally expensive but I think are essential.”

In recent years, those costly but demanded services have include a critical response unit for mental-health emergencies and more officers at the Missoula Police Department. All four candidates agreed that funding the police is vital, and budgeting requires difficult decisions.

“Part of being a leader is saying no sometimes, but it's for the greater good of the community,” Elder said. “People are hurting, and we need to prioritize needs over some of the extra wants.”

The candidates also agreed on issues around housing, saying that more housing options would help ease the city's housing challenge. Streamlining the building and permitted process would also have far-reaching benefits. But like taxes, meeting the city's housing needs also brought some areas of disagreement.

Strandberg described the Canyon River subdivision as a model worth repeating, saying the high number of units placed on a limited number of acres helped hundreds of residents achieve the American dream of home ownership at what then was an affordable price.

He said the city should look for opportunities to do similar projects in other parts of the community and engage with the public on where those opportunities lie. He added that the city should act quicker on redeveloping the properties it owns, including the library block in downtown Missoula.

“I'm worried that during the mayoral election, there will be talk about making that affordable housing,” Strandberg said. “But when the election is over, it will probably be handed over to some developer from Florida so they can build a fancy new hotel and conference center with an art gallery beneath it, cause we know we need a lot of those.”

Knopp also agreed that building more housing would help alleviate the city's housing issues, and he suggested that it takes developers too long to secure a building permit. He would work to streamline the regulatory and permitting process if elected, and take a closer look at manufactured homes.

Elder also would look to streamline regulations, planning and review, and focus the city's infrastructure investments in areas that boost housing construction.

“We need new leadership and measurable results,” Elder said. “I'll work with city planning staff, City Council, planning consultants and members of the public to rewrite zoning code in a way that supports the construction of more housing of all types and all price points while allowing for streamlined staff review and easy, predictable compliance from members of the building community.”

Engen said the city is already doing what the challengers suggested by focusing nearly $20 million in new infrastructure in the greater Mullan area to get ahead of growth and lead new construction. Despite the accusation of several candidates, he said the city has permitted more than 600 residential units so far this year.

Still, he admitted, there's more to do and said the effort is gaining momentum after years of planning and intentional work. He cited the Scott Street development – the largest affordable housing project in Montana – as an example, along with current work to unify the city's building codes and streamline the regulatory process.

“The city of Missoula doesn't build housing, the private sector builds housing, and it does so in partnership with the city,” Engen said. “We're tipping up what's going to be the largest affordable housing project in the state of Montana, not only including rental units, but also units for ownership. It's a model we can replicate.”

All four candidates vowed to take action on climate change if elected, and each of them agreed that policing is vital to a safe community. All advocated for solutions to homelessness, though the three challenges took a harsher stand on the city's transient population.

The debate included several odd moments, including Strandberg's suggestion that the Covid-19 vaccine was little more than a “genetic” experiment and that anti-vaccine advocates should be left to make their own choices. He criticized City Club Missoula for canceling the live debate in favor of Monday's virtual event.

Many questions in the cue during the Zoom debate also asked Elder how he could pledge transparency as the city's new mayor given his campaign's practice of blocking people from his Facebook page when he disagreed with a comment or didn't want to answer a question.

The debate's moderator asked Elder twice about the accusations.

“We are not blocking people or deleting people. We're running our campaign,” Elder said. “We're a no-name candidate trying to get our name out there, and there's these commentators who are spewing misleading and divisive comments, and we're not going to tolerate that. If you want to campaign for the mayor, go campaign for the mayor on his platform. I pride myself on transparency, and as mayor, I'll be transparent with you.”