Council adopts FY 2017 city budget after last-minute wrangling

City Council

By Martin Kidston

The Missoula Economic Partnership and a host of community service organizations asked the City Council to reconsider proposed cuts to their programs as part of the Fiscal Year 2017 budget.

After a round of debate, the council responded by undoing an across-the-board cut of 10 percent to a handful of nonprofit groups and restored full funding to MEP, effectively raising taxes from 3.62 percent to 3.83 percent.

Before adopting the new city budget, however, the council on a 5-5 vote withdrew an additional planner to help implement the city’s new growth policy. The issue was the most debated topic of the evening.

“I don’t feel we have enough of a direction for that position to work on at this time,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler, who led the effort to cut the position from the budget. “Saying we need to get ahead of planning is too vague for me.”

Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley disagreed.

“We have spent years developing a growth policy,” Bentley said. “It’s not smart to write a growth policy and then not implement it. We’re going through major growth right now. If we don’t act proactively, we’re going to get behind.”

Some of those who moved to scuttle the position based their decision in part upon a presentation given last week by planning services manager Laval Means. During the session, they said, she failed to convince the Budgeting Committee that the position was needed.

Those who favored keeping the position called Means’ presentation “unfortunate,” saying it was not a reason to handicap the city’s development arm at a time when the city is facing robust growth.

“I’m convinced that if we spend the time now to actualize the vision we created in the growth policy, we’ll be a better community in the long run,” said Ward 4 council member John DiBari. “In order to reach the vision we articulated and the concept of focusing inward, we need to be intentional in how we do things.”

The 5-5 vote meant the motion to keep the position failed.

Monday night’s last-minute debate also saw the city adopt the overall budget on a 9-1 vote. Only Ward 2 council member Harlan Wells voted against it, saying a tax increase of 3.8 percent would hurt the city’s potential for economic growth. The council entered the night facing a tax increase of just 3.6 percent.

While Wells lobbied the council to seek other ways to offset costs, no one placed a motion on the floor to do so. The council instead voted to fully fund last-minute items in the budget, including community service organizations at $282,000 and MEP at $100,000.

Ward 5 council member Julie Armstrong said the council should not be responsible for awarding grants to nonprofit organizations. DiBari also agreed, saying the current system favors some organizations and neglects others.

DiBari said the overall budget adds to city residents’ cumulative tax burden.

“The council needs to and can do better in how it works through this budgeting process,” he said. “But a vote against this budget would be a mistake, ignoring all the hard work that went into putting it together.”

As passed, the budget includes two additional police officers to work the downtown district, a new animal control officer, additional employees for Parks and Recreation, and two employees to patch potholes and plow roads, among other new positions.

The budget failed to fund a planner to implement the growth policy. It also left out two community service specialists and an assistant judge for Municipal Court.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com