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Mayor Engen to emphasize capital improvements, staffing needs in FY19 budget

Missoula Mayor John Engen plans to approach the Fiscal Year 2019 budget differently this year, waiting until the Montana Department of Revenue provides solid numbers around the latest taxable values. (Missoula Current file photo)

Missoula Mayor John Engen on Wednesday said he’ll request continued investment in capital improvements in this year’s budget, and add staff to several city departments to keep pace with the city’s growth and the public’s expectations for service.

The three-term mayor also plans to approach the Fiscal Year 2019 budgeting process differently this year by waiting until the Montana Department of Revenue provides solid numbers around the latest taxable values.

Engen addressed members of the City Council on Wednesday as they commenced the budgeting season. The brief morning session offered a glimpse of the city’s spending priorities which, the mayor said, will be tied to community input gathered in a recent survey and last year’s election.

Among them, Engen will request three new patrol officers for the Missoula Police Department, two new employees for the Street Division, a new prosecutor at the City Attorney’s Office, and a technician to maintain the city’s traffic signals.

Streets, water and sewer will get their share of attention in this year’s budget as well.

“I’ll request that the City Council continue to make significant investment in our Capital Improvement Program, which is the unsung hero of the city budget,” Engen said. “If funded, this year’s program will go a long way in meeting our infrastructure needs.”

Among those needs, Engen will request roughly $6.9 million in water system improvements, and $1.2 million in wastewater improvements. His requests also include $2.2 million for park construction and upgrades, $2.6 million for equipment replacement, and $6.7 million in street and sidewalk improvements.

Engen said potholes, plowing and street painting scored high on the recent community survey, which the city conducted earlier this year to weigh the public’s spending priorities. Capital improvements also dominated a portion of last year’s race for mayor.

“Streets are expensive and infrastructure is expensive, but I think we have an opportunity to listen and learn and do better,” Engen said. “When we’re putting that many millions of dollars into infrastructure, it’s going to make a real difference on the ground. We do it year in and year out, but we don’t tend to talk about it.”

In past years, the City Council drafted a preliminary budget to coincide with the start of the fiscal year on July 1. However, that approach forced the city to use “best guess” scenarios over incoming tax revenues, which aren’t available until August.

This year, Engen said, the city will wait for solid numbers from the Montana Department of Revenue, which are expected on August 6. Council members billed the new approach as a worthwhile experiment.

“That old process always left a little something to be desired, fishing around for estimates in advance of the real taxable priorities from DOR,” said council member Jordan Hess. “This is a great opportunity to talk about priorities and the strategies the mayor has listed. I’m optimistic about this new process.”

Engen said the recent community survey and other input suggested that city residents enjoy quality of life and are willing to invest in services to maintain it. However, he added, that willingness to “pay more to get more” has been tempered recently by concerns over rising property taxes.

“Our community is generous and views property taxes as an investment in a great place to live, but there’s a limit,” Engen said. “When those increases – whether it’s a function of Montana Department of Revenue reappraisals or excessive spending by local government – are out of line with the marketplace, folks get nervous.”

While the mayor’s executive budget will wait on the DOR, Engen has identified a number of requests, including additional employees for the Street Division and the Missoula Police Department.

Many of the requests identified by the mayor are being driven by the city’s growth and increased demand for services, he said.

“Because quality of life is so important to our constituents, public safety is a necessary investment,” Engen said. “As the city grows, we need more officers on the street. I’ll propose an additional three officers to further bolster our patrols.”

Engen said some requests will require no additional funding in the budget.

“Many of the new requests you’ll see are funded through enterprises and don’t affect property taxes,” Engen said. “In some cases, those enterprises are helping fund positions that benefit the entire municipal operation.”

The City Council will spend the next four weeks taking budget requests from individual departments. The state is expected to release its tax values on August 6 and Engen will deliver his executive budget two days later.

The budget is scheduled for adoption on August 20.

Jesse Ramos, a critic of city spending, said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the mayor’s decision to delay the budget until DOR releases its new figures.

“My more pessimistic side was kind of worried about us basing our budget on the large valuations from last year,” Ramos said. “I hope that as we go through the budgeting process, we can focus on the increases and spending as opposed to raising the mill levy or lowering the mill levy. I’m pleased with this decision and I hope it works out.”