Budget Committee proposes “across-the-board” cuts to organizations

City Council

By Martin Kidston

During budget negotiations on Wednesday, the Missoula City Council agreed to fund an animal control officer, two urban foresters and a community planner to implement the city’s new growth policy – all part of the city’s Fiscal Year 2017 budget.

The council also engaged in a terse philosophical debate over funding community programs like the City Band and Volunteer Missoula before making a 10-percent across-the-board cut to a handful of organizations.

In the morning work session, Ward 4 council member John DiBari attempted to eliminate city funding to a handful of community programs, saying the council had a fiduciary duty to hold down tax increases.

While the organizations each play a unique role in the community, DiBari said, they don’t provide services essential to a functioning government.

“There are number of people in this community who are feeling the pain of increased taxes, not just from the city’s budget, but also through the county’s budget and bonding issues,” DiBari said. “I don’t have anything against these organizations, but from my perspective, they’re not governmental functions, not like public health and safety, not like community development or economic development.”

DiBari’s motion wasn’t well received by several council members, though it succeed in sparking a larger discussion on taxes, spending and what community organizations the city does and does not support.

While most of the council described the programs as beneficial, they also agreed to decrease funding to the organizations by 10 percent in an effort to hold down an anticipated tax increase of roughly 3.6 percent. The effort ultimately passed, though the council expressed general frustration with the process.

“There’s nothing strategic about an across-the-board cut,” said Ward 2 council member Jordan Hess. “That’s not a responsible way to budget. I think we have no clue whatsoever about what impact this has on their budgets. It saves a relatively small amount of money that will leave these organizations struggling to make ends meet.”

The cuts reduce funding to the International Choir Festival, the Cultural Council and the Community Dispute Resolution Center. The move also cuts funding to the community service program run by Missoula Correctional Services, as well as the City Band, Volunteer Missoula and the Neighborhood Ambassador’s Program, among others.

“I don’t think you realize what some of these people do,” said Ward 4 council member John Wilkins. “To drop funding for the community service program by $6,000 – that will ruin this program.”

While the cuts were approved by the budget committee, they must pass the full City Council on Monday night.

“We need to talk about this more this fall and have a more strategic approach,” said Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones. “I feel in some ways we’re dispensing grants instead of true city-oriented services. We need a paradigm shift and we have to have a more strategic discussion.”

While DiBari worked to reduce funding to the service organizations, he spearheaded a push to add $55,000 to the budget to hire a planner at Development Services to implement the city’s growth policy and pending design standards.

He framed it as an essential position, saying today’s planning efforts will shape the function of tomorrow’s community.

“We put together what I think is an excellent road map for development in our community,” DiBari said. “Having (a planner) available is one of the best ways to ensure the growth policy and some of the priorities within community development get actualized.”

Over the past year, City Council has directed Development Services to address commercial design standards and work to implement items in the growth policy. The policy was adopted last November after an extensive public process.

Laval Means with Development Services said the position would help city planners get ahead of the building boom and implement items in the growth policy sooner rather than later.

“The more employees we have, the more we can accomplish,” said Means. “This is one way to be more on top of things.”

The council also voted to fund a new animal control officer, along with another employee for the Public Works Department to patch potholes and plow streets. Parks and Recreation also received two positions to maintain trees in the city’s urban forest.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com