City Council moves to cut funding to MEP over communication frustrations

MEP
The Missoula Economic Partnership announced its new five-year plan at its investors’ meeting earlier this year. (file photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston

Expressing frustration over the Missoula Economic Partnership’s perceived lack of communication, the City Council on Wednesday voted to reduce funding to the organization and implement new reporting requirements in a pending new contract.

During Wednesday’s budgeting session, the council reduced the city’s contribution to MEP from $100,000 to just $25,000, citing frustration over what several members view as a general lack of communication.

“We have traditionally had more updates from MEP, but we’ve gotten away from that and I don’t think that serves us well,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg. “We don’t have a standing policy on that, and that’s another area that’s a flag for me.”

Von Lossberg said he recently asked MEP during a presentation to provide specific figures regarding business growth, attraction and retention within his ward. He said he made the request of MEP so he could answer constituent questions.

“It’s been a week since that presentation and there’s been no follow up,” said von Lossberg. “I would be remiss in not saying it bothers me that we’re funding a $100,000 line item with the lack of updates we get, and the lack of detail about the numerical benefits tied to the practical things we see.”

James Grunke, executive director of MEP, told the Missoula Current that his organization often deals with proprietary information, which it’s not always free to disclose. Still, he said, MEP would also like to see communication with the council improve.

Grunke said he expects the report requested by the council to be available in a matter of weeks. While MEP may not be able to name individual companies in all cases, he said, it can point to industry type, job growth and location.

“We have never not attended a committee meeting when we’ve been invited,” Grunke said. “We’d like to have more regular communication with the council. We think it’s a reasonable request and we’d welcome it. I want them to have the information.”

Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong motioned to fund MEP at just $25,000 until the council gets regular reports and updates from the organization. If MEP met the city’s request, she said, the council would reconsider MEP’s full funding.

“MEP does good work,” Armstrong said. “Unfortunately, much of their reporting is done through the newspapers and op-eds, and we might want to be the first to know when things are happening instead of being the last to know.”

MEP was created in 2011 to spearhead economic growth in Missoula after supporters raised $3.2 million. The funding was largely provided by private donations, though it also came from the city and Missoula County, as well as the University of Montana and Missoula International Airport.

Earlier this year, MEP launched a new five-year plan that guides the organization to foster the creation of 3,000 new jobs in and around Missoula, and to facilitate $300 million in new capital investment.

MEP has also identified eight industry clusters it plans to target for business retention and expansion, including information technology, biotech, advanced manufacturing and creative industries, among others.

“We’re the single organization in this town that’s trying to help existing businesses expand and grow, and attract new businesses into the community,” Grunke said. “We’ve been tremendously successful.”

Dale Bickell, the city’s chief administrative officer, said the city’s contract with MEP expired in June. The council is likely to ask that certain communication benchmarks be listed in the new contract.

“Since the contract would come before us as it’s finalized, I think it would be completely appropriate to do a midyear budget amendment to reduce the amount if it’s what we chose to do,” said Ward 2 council member Jordan Hess. “It would be prudent to leave it at $100,000 and adjust it downward as appropriate or add reporting requirements.”

Ward 1 council member Harlan Wells sought to defund MEP completely.

“I was going through my emails to see if I missed it (the report),” said Wells. “We very specifically asked for a very specific thing, and if they don’t have the courtesy to supply us with those names so we can go to our constituents and explain where this $100,000 is going, as far as I’m concerned it’s a no show on their part,” Wells said.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com