Missoula County to raise property taxes as needs mount for health care, social services

Missoula County residents will see an increase on their property tax bills this year, county commissioners warned Thursday.

The causes are many: state and federal cuts in essential services now borne by the county, increased health insurance costs, a cost-of-living increase for county employees, and higher costs for health care at the Missoula County Detention Facility.

A growing county population creates the need for another sheriff’s deputy, the county must hire a new clerk for an additional district court judge,  and plans call for hiring a wildfire preparedness coordinator, an affordable housing coordinator, a  grants administrator and two new positions in the IT department.

There are maintenance costs for the new Fort Missoula Regional Park. And the extra mills associated with the $30 million, voter-approved Missoula Public Library bond will begin appearing on tax bills in November.

“The county most often has to raise taxes, at least some, unless we cut services or lay off staff,” Commissioner Jean Curtiss said. “And as you know, wages go up, energy costs go up, the price of asphalt goes up, costs of a dump truck, all of those things. State and federal dollars are continuing to decline.”

Initial estimates show a $30 increase in property taxes for a $200,000 home. Of that, about $19 is for the library bond and $12 is for county services. The final number will change somewhat, based on the certified taxable values received next month from the Montana Department of Revenue.

Without a tax increase, Missoula County would fall short of the funding needed to even continue existing services, commissioners said.

Some of the most noteworthy budget increases are linked to reduced funding for mental and public health services at the state and federal levels.

“We face some challenges that are related to mental health and public health,” Curtiss said during Thursday’s public hearing. “These are areas that were really impacted by the state and federal cuts. Because of predicted revenue shortfalls in the state’s general fund, the Department of Health and Human Services was directed to make cuts in its budget.”

Some providers, like the City-County Health Department, the Missoula County Detention Center and the Western Montana Mental Health Center were hard hit.

So, for example, Missoula County’s fiscal 2019 budget includes increases in the medical contract for services at the Missoula County Detention Center.

“The needs of the citizens suffering from mental health issues, substance abuse issues, developmental delays, don’t go away,” Curtiss said. “The new contract provides more services. Different kinds of services like more focus on mental health, will cost $400,000 more than our contract did last year.”

With 253 requests for extra funding from county department heads, the commissioners have rejected 24, 104 are pending and are included in the budget, and 125 have been approved and are also included in the budget.

While not everything that requires funding can be approved, the commissioners tried to forewarn county residents that they’ll see an increase on their tax bills. They encouraged residents to attend public meetings and comment on the budget, or to email their comments to bcc@missoulacounty.us.

“With state and federal cuts and an increase in population of people living on a fixed income, we attempt to get a greater value out of every dollar, knowing that oftentimes we do have to raise more dollars because the cost of doing business continues to go up and with the population growth, there’s more work that needs to be done,” Commissioner Nicole Rowley said.

The final budget hearing is set for Aug. 23 at 2 p.m. in Annex Room 151 in the Missoula County Courthouse. The final budget will be adopted at the commissioners’ administrative meeting a week later, where there will be opportunities to comment as well.