Tensions ran high at Monday night’s Missoula City Council meeting, as members heard public testimony, deliberated and unanimously approved the fiscal year 2018 city budget.
Following committee meetings last week, the budget included a 4.02 percent increase in property taxes. That number dropped to 3.82 percent at Monday’s meeting; still, most citizens who testified opposed any increase.
Homeowner Karen Giuliani said she’s been willing to pay her taxes up to a point, but her recent retirement and loss of income is restricting her ability to meet an increasing tax burden.
“I would ask you not to vote on this resolution tonight and give people a chance to look at these figures,” Giuliani said. “This is going to hurt a lot of people.”
Several people on fixed incomes pointed to the fact that Social Security is not increasing at a rate commensurate with Missoula taxes. Others noted that they had approached city officials with questions and had not received answers.
City Council candidate Jesse Ramos works for a financial institution and pointed to several ways he thought the council could reduce waste.
“Why are you trying to buy a Lamborghini when you can’t even pay the water bill?” Ramos asked. “Where’s all the tax revenue going?”
Like many other speakers, Ramos pointed to a greater need for veteran and suicide support services in the city’s budget.
Unlike those before her, City Council candidate Heather Harp said she she counts herself as lucky ato be a homeowner. She urged the others in the audience to empathize with council members.
“These individuals are taxed with making sure the taxes that come in are doing the best they possibly can here in the short term, but also in the long term,” Harp said. “I think you should approve the budget.”
Many people who spoke asked council members to delay the vote to give citizens more time to consider the numbers and come forward with additional comments.
Mayor John Engen said delaying a budget wouldn’t add value to it.
“You can send this back to committee, but you will have the same set of facts, the same set of circumstances,” Engen said. “The sooner we adopt, the better off we are operationally.”
After the vote, Engen spoke to the importance of the city budget, calling it an investment.
“If I had my druthers, I wouldn’t raise your taxes and I wouldn’t raise my taxes,” Engen said. “We have to pay for stuff. The way we do that is by making a collective investment in our community. … This is our opportunity to work together, to take care of one another.”
City council members also defended the budget, several of them pointing to the work they continuously put into re-evaluating the budget. Council member Marilyn Marler said she doesn’t believe citizens know what it’s like to serve on the council, so their frustration isn’t always directed at the right place.
“People want more, and it’s hard,” Marler said. “A lot of the frustration is all conflated together and what is really standing out to me as an elected person is the frustration of only having one revenue tool, which is property tax.”
Council member Gwen Jones echoed Marler’s remarks, saying a lot of frustration is aimed at the city when it is up to the state Legislature to fix the “dysfunctional” tax system in Montana.
“We cannot do this on a city level,” Jones said. “We do not have the tools. We can’t lose sight of the forest for the trees.”
Council member Jon Wilkins said that while he doesn’t always support budget proposals, he voted yes on this one because it includes a full-time suicide prevention officer.
City officials presented detailed breakdowns of the proposed budget, which allocates money for two additional community service officers and union increases for public safety officers. They also demonstrated the iTax tool, an online resource which can show city taxpayers how their tax money is portioned to various city entities.