Community organizations lobby city to maintain funding amid budget talks

The Neighborhood Ambassadors program at the University of Montana, which looks to maintain a positive relationship between University District homeowners and students, is one of several community-based organizations facing cuts proposed by the City Council. (UM photo)

By Martin Kidston

From the first brass band established in Missoula in 1865 to the small orchestra that played for the “hurdy gurdy” girls at the Gem Theater in 1905, music has always been a part of the city’s history.

But members of today’s City Band fear that history could fall by the wayside if the Missoula City Council reduces funding to the civic organization as proposed in the Fiscal Year 2017 budget.

The band is one of several community-based organization facing a cut of 10 percent. While most of the organizations say the reduction could be absorbed, they also believe that it threatens to diminish the services provided to city residents.

“We’ve been funded by the city for more than 80 years, but for the last 25 years, we’ve experienced nothing but continued cuts in funding,” said Gary Gillette, director of the City Band. “We’d like to add a week onto the season, but with this cut, we can’t ask our members to do that.”

As proposed, the cuts would impact a handful of community organizations, from the Neighborhood Ambassadors at the University of Montana to the International Choir Festival.

It would also impact the Community Dispute Resolution Center. Created 20 years ago as a small nonprofit, the organization’s volunteers provide a number of services, from helping divorcing parents develop parenting plans to settling disputes between neighbors.

In the past, CDRC also has been called upon by the city to mediate contentious neighborhood meetings. Last year, it mediated 121 Justice Court cases and successfully settled more nearly 65 percent of them.

“Anybody that files a small claims case in Justice Court generally has to go through the mediation process using our volunteers before seeing the judge,” said Skip Hegman, chairman of the organization’s board of directors. “That significantly reduces the case load for the courts.”

Like many local nonprofits, Hegman said it’s difficult to find reliable funding sources. Donations come and go, leaving the the city’s $7,200 annual contribution as one of the organization’s most stable funding streams.

Hegman said that while the organization could survive a 10-percent cut in city funding, the loss of revenue may still pose challenges. The funding provided by the city has helped CDRC pay for office space, cover the salary of a part-time director and train new mediators.

At the same time, Hegman said he understands the council’s reasoning.

“I think it’s fair to ask if it’s the best way to spend tax dollars,” Hegman said. “If we can’t justify what we do, we probably shouldn’t be taking the dollars. All boards have to go through that.”

After Wednesday’s budgeting session, the city reached out to the community organizations and invited them to present their case to the City Council next Monday night. Hegman said he was writing a letter asking the council to reconsider the cuts.

Tom Bensen, executive director of the Missoula Cultural Council was doing the same, hoping to convince the city to fully fund the organization. Formed in 1991, the Missoula Cultural Council provides a number of services at the city’s request, from administering the Public Art Committee to Missoula’s sister-city partnership with communities in Germany and New Zealand.

“Those are official city-to-city relationships with city governments,” said Bensen. “We also provide the city economic development studies, and we’re working on one now on the economic impact of the arts community.”

This year, the Missoula Cultural Council is asking the city for roughly $116,000, a figure Bensen says reflects the growth in programs offered by MCC to the city. The organization also serves as the fiscal agent for the Arts Ignite Learning program, which involves the city, and it actively promotes First Friday, benefiting downtown businesses.

The proposed cuts would reduce funding to MCC by roughly $16,000. Bensen said it would likely prompt the organization to cut its administrator to the Public Art Committee.

“I understand the city’s frustration – they have a frustration every year with this line item,” said Bensen. “They’re proposing a cut, which they can do, but they’re also asking us to provide services. If they go with the cut, they won’t get all the services they’re asking for. We’d love to serve the city and we’re not saying we can’t, but we won’t be able to do that to the degree we’re now capable of.”

According to recent budgeting documents, the city provides roughly $280,000 to select community programs. Over the past month, council members have wrestled with a number of governmental funding requests, from adding new city police officers to a city planner to help implement the city’s new growth policy.

In an effort to hold down anticipated tax increases, the council moved to make an across-the-board cut of 10 percent to community-based organizations. Most of the council agreed that a better system was needed to identify organizational needs, though they also questioned the city’s role in serving as a grant administrator.

While the council is expected to continue the discussion on Monday night, leaders of the local organizations are looking to push back in hopes of retaining their share of city funding.

“We’re a bunch of amateur musicians, and it’s hard to change our vision from rehearsing and performing to fundraising,” Gillette said of the City Band. “It’s an unusual deal for a city band to still be funded by a city because of crunching economic times. But our city has continued to support us.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at