In the closing days of June and after a final ruling from District Court, the city of Missoula became the official owner of its drinking water system, achieving a goal that dates back several decades but had never been achieved.
While critics panned the acquisition of Mountain Water Co. as an infringement on private business, Missoula Mayor John Engen sees it as one of the city’s finest moments, one that marks a pinnacle of his administration’s third term in office.
“The water acquisition is a victory for the entire community, and I think it’s a victory for entire generations to come,” Engen said.
“Frankly, the deck is stacked against consumers and citizens when it comes to regulated utilities, and particularly this utility,” he added. “We’re able to take money that was going elsewhere, reinvest it in this system, and make sure Missoula has safe, clean water for decades to come. That’s just fundamental to civic life.”
Seated in his office at City Hall, Engen considered his three terms as mayor and his bid to win reelection this November. To secure that fourth term, the incumbent will face a political newcomer in Lisa Triepke, who believes taxes are too high and that too many high-dollar decisions are being made by too few people.
While Engen doesn’t deny that taxes have increased during his time in office, he believes they’re equal to the cost of inflation and the price of maintaining essential services. After years of work, he said, Missoula is on a new trajectory, driven in part by a wider tax base and new construction.
Engen said the city’s growth provides new opportunities – opportunities that weren’t available a few years ago.
“We have real opportunities with the city budget because of this growth cycle,” he said. “I’ve heard more about property taxes in the last year than I have in the last 12 years, and I’m not deaf to that. Because of everyone’s hard work, our tax base has expanded, and that allows us to do some things we weren’t able to do before, and one of them is to cover our costs without raising taxes.”
This summer, buoyed by newly taxable property, the city adopted a budget that will lower taxes for some property owners. Engen expects the growth to continue, a move he believes will enhance the city’s budget for years to come and take some of the pressure off property owners.
A number of sizable projects have yet to hit the tax rolls and several other large developments, including the Riverfront Triangle and the Old Sawmill District, are gearing up to break ground on new projects.
“We can put some money in the bank and make sure our cash balance is where it needs to be,” Engen said. “We can continue to invest in things Missoulians think are important, and we’ll continue to look for alternatives (to property taxes).”
Engen attributes the city’s growth to a number of successes, most of which don’t get much publicity in the media. Among them is better long-term planning, something Engen has warmed up to during his time as mayor.
“For a long time, when I served on the City Council, it seems to me we made a lot of plans but didn’t execute those plans,” Engen said. “But over the course of the last dozen years and longer, we’ve made those plans a product of community engagement, and we’ve aligned our policies and our organizations around those plans. All of that has made a huge difference in the confidence people have in making an investment in Missoula.”
While the city’s future is bright, Engen said, it doesn’t come without challenges. Foremost among them may be the cost of housing – an issue that has received its share of attention over the past two years.
Engen doesn’t believe the situation has reached the point of crisis, though it has left too many people unable to afford safe housing. If reelected to office, he said, housing would top his list of issues. He got a jump on the effort last year by establishing the Office of Housing and Community Development.
The city is now in the process of writing a housing policy for the first time, Engen said.
“We need to take care of folks sleeping in their cars or couch surfing, but we really need to create opportunities for that middle-class experience,” he said. “There are too many people who are left out today, and the housing and wage gap is a critical issue.”
Engen’s challenger, backed by a camp of conservative supporters, has criticized the mayor for raising taxes throughout much of his time in office. Engen doesn’t deny the charge, though he maintains that past tax increases were both conservative and necessary.
The city’s expenses increase each year, from the cost of asphalt to police and firefighter wages. And while expenses increase, he added, the demands of citizens have increased as well, leaving the city with two options.
“We can do less, which is not what I hear from voters, or we ask people to pay a little more,” Engen said. “Our increases have been commensurate with a couple of things, one being inflation and the cost of doing business in the city. The lion’s share of that is public safety.”
Engen’s opponent has vowed to look at cuts as deep as 5 to 7 percent when starting the budgeting process. The mayor believes that’s irresponsible and says his administration has always been fiscally prudent when it comes to spending.
“Moving forward, we need to balance those interests with folks who want more with what we can afford,” Engen said. “Striking that balance is really the challenge of this office. It would be irresponsible for me to put out a budget that limits services or reduces services.”