The city’s two candidates for mayor agreed Thursday night on equality for gays and lesbians, the need to boost recycling opportunities, and that Mountain Line’s switch to electric buses was generally a good thing.
Missoula, they also agreed, is a good place to live.
But on issues surrounding growth, taxation and the basic functions of city government, the candidates took opposing positions.
In her forum debut, challenger Lisa Triepke held true to her platform of lower taxes, though she offered few details on where and how she would do so. She argued that city government must run like a business, making do with what it had.
“In all of my positions, we’ve been required to set budgets and timelines, and come in on budget and on time,” said Triepke. “We need to realize there’s a bottom line, do more with what we have and make the most out of the resources that we have available.”
Incumbent Mayor John Engen disagreed, saying business, unlike government, is out to turn a profit. While the principles of fiscal responsibility apply to both business and government, the latter is rooted in democracy while the former is not.
“There are certainly principles of business we can apply to municipal operations,” Engen said. “But Missoula is a very engaged community and is very interested in being part of the decision, and frankly, business doesn’t operate that way.”
With an estimated 60 people in attendance, Engen and Triepke answered questions submitted by the audience for the first time this election cycle. The format allowed no opportunity for rebuttal, but gave each candidate several minutes to express their views without being challenged on facts or pressed for actual details.
While Triepke said she believes in making long-term investments in the city, those investments should be made after basic services are met. She focused several times on plowing snow and patching potholes, saying she didn’t see a snowplow on her street “for 10 days twice last year.”
“I do believe in long-term investment,” Triepke said. “But as our taxes go up, our services have gone down. I think those are needs and we should be able to expect those. We should be able to expect the snow plowed in a timely manner, the potholes fixed, and the greenways and the parks cleaned.”
Engen said the city does patch potholes and plow snow, and it has been successful in providing a variety of services while holding down taxes. More services bring additional expenses, he added, and the city must make careful choices when weighing new service requests.
“I was confronted with new requests north of $2 million this year for the city budget, and we funded a relatively small portion of that,” Engen said. “That’s what we do every year. We weigh the needs and wants and recognize that most of those needs and wants are a function of what we hear from the folks we serve.”
The candidates also differed in the role tax increment financing plays in driving local investment, and whether they supported the city’s urban renewal districts. Engen called the districts an investment in Missoula’s future while Triepke gave a less committed answer.
“From my understanding and talking to a couple people who understand this thoroughly, what it does, it takes away some of the funding so that the tax base there doesn’t feed back into the schools in that area, and other people are having to come up to supplement that tax base for some of that,” Triepke said.
“I think we’ve seen phenomenal growth down Brooks Street, so there’s pluses and minutes to it. Missoula is growing in a way we can all see the benefits of what’s happened, but there’s also some impacts.”
Engen said TIF funding gives the city a tool to create public infrastructure while working with private businesses to encourage future investment.
When the TIF district expired in downtown Missoula, the mayor said, it saw $20 million in investment bring more than $200 million in improvements, benefiting the entire district and raising property values.
Engen called TIF a powerful tool that has brought new opportunities to Missoula and increased outside investment in the community. That has brought new jobs and a sense of economic progress.
“Where we have folks making investments and taking advantage of TIF districts, we get more done and that ‘more’ results in a growing tax base,” Engen said. “TIF is an investment in the future and everywhere you see a district at work, you’re seeing a growing tax base that will benefit the city for a long time to come.”
While both candidates agreed the city needed to address affordable housing, the two expressed different ways to achieve that goal. Triepke believes the problem lies in political red tape, making it hard for developers to build affordable housing.
“In my mind, the city of Missoula hasn’t created, but it has enhanced the problem of affordable housing through the taxes and unnecessary spending craze that’s going on,” Triepke said. “If we worked with developers to not have roadblocks, red tape and skyrocketing fees and the rest of the things they’re being assessed with, then we can make it more affordable for them to create housing that people can afford to buy.”
Engen said the problem relates to inventory and, last year, he created the Office on Housing and Community Development to address the issue. The city is currently writing its first-ever housing policy and it has partnered on a study with the Missoula Organization of Realtors to understand the underlying issues at play.
“The fact is, we need to be more intentional about the way we approach housing,” Engen said. “While we’ve built hundreds of affordable units over the course of the past dozen years, we need thousands of units that are affordable to Missoulians of all walks of life. I intend to be intentional.”