As final budget nears, Missoula City Council debates cuts, new expenses
Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
When the late Missoula Mayor John Engen presented his executive budget earlier this year, it included caution that finances were lean while the city's list of needs was long.
As proposed, the city's roughly $270 million budget will cover the basic cost of running local government, from police and fire to roads and employees. It will also continue funding various social programs, though some requests will likely go unfilled this year.
While the proposed budget will raise taxes on property owners to correct what the city has described as a budgetary imbalance, some members of City Council sought Wednesday to add additional expenses as the process of crafting the new budget enters the 11th hour.
Council Member Daniel Carlino offered the largest number of potential amendments, including funding a number of requests to their full amount. That included a $300,000 request for the city's climate action program and another $600,000 for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund.
As it stands, the current budget looks to contribute $250,000 to the Trust Fund.
“It was great that we put so much money toward the Affordable Housing Trust Fund last year,” said Carlino. “It was great that the staff has asked for $850,000. I'm hoping we can cover that gap.”
According to the city's Office of Community Planning, Development and Innovation, which submitted the request, an additional $600,000 would be helpful in the short-term, though the Trust Fund remains in a solid place over the long-term.
“We're in an awkward place with the Trust Fund, where we have a number of large revenue sources identified, though they haven't yet come to fruition,” said Eran Pehan, direct of the planning department. “That's largely a timing issue.”
Revenue from the sale of city-held properties is earmarked for the Trust Fund, and it will amount to millions of dollars once the proceeds come in. That includes proceeds from the sale of the Scott Street property, and the future sale of other city properties like the Sleepy Inn, the Missoula Water building, the old library block and others.
Engen created the Trust Fund two years ago to create a tool in which the city could be “more intentional” in addressing some of its housing efforts.
“There are a lot of funding sources that will be coming in,” said Acting Mayor Gwen Jones. “It's looking at the long game. The investments that will be applied to these Trust Fund projects will provide long-term, deed-restricted housing. It does move slowly but it creates true solutions in the long run.”
Carlino also sought to fully fund a nearly $1 million request from Public Works to hire six more employees and to purchase three more street plows. He also looks to increase the city's subsidy for sidewalks and pay for more neighborhood traffic circles.
When asked what he sought to cut, Carlino suggested that a portion of it come from contracts already approved by the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. Other council members said the revenue created by the resulting projects helps develop affordable housing.
Carlino also sought to cut an account for police uniforms and police training. Among the particulars, he eyed a $214,000 line item for travel and personnel training for police officers, calling it a “big travel budget.”
Police Chief Jaeson White said travel and training are combined in a single budget and are necessary for a professional department.
“It's the amount of money we have to train our personnel, everything from the initial police academy in Helena all the way through our advanced training,” said White. “It allows us to send our officers to FTO school, bomb schools, to provide interview skills for our detectives, interview training, all those things that go to provide a professional police service.”
Back in 2020 during the height of the protests against law enforcement, the City Council increased funding for the police department to increase officer training. White, who was newly hired, said the city's training funds had been inadequate up until then.
“We were not able to provide profession training to our personnel,” White said. “We put together a robust plan to bring the professional standards of the department to modern standards, and we use those dollars to provide that training.”
Most members of the City Council backed the budget as proposed and expressed reluctance to add additional costs or make deeper cuts to already lean programs.
While some impactful programs won't receive the funding some people think they deserve, spreading revenue across the city's various functions isn't easy, council member Stacey Anderson said.
“We're constantly in a balancing act of revenue versus expenses,” she said. “As are all the households in Missoula, we are in the same situation. This year's budget is especially difficult.”
The City Council may however entertain a $2,600 request to purchase a new chair and desk for the City Attorney, replacing the current chair that's been in service for 20 years. That funding request was put forward by council member Sandra Vasecka.
“He has been using a desk that's 20 years old. He's been with us a long time. I think we can afford to find $2,600 to get him a proper chair,” she said.
The City Council is expected to discuss the budget on Monday night and consider any amendments, from cuts to additions, before adopting this year's budget.
“This is a hard year in which we need to address our structural deficit to get it to a manageable place,” said Jones. “That involves raising some taxes and not adding hardly any new programs in.”