Missoula City Council: Ramos to propose $2 million in cuts to 2019 budget

Jesse Ramos

Missoula City Councilman Jesse Ramos will propose about $2 million in cuts to the city’s 2019 budget, but likely won’t provide that list before a Wednesday work session.

In an interview following Monday night’s City Council meeting, Ramos said he is having trouble getting the information he needs to finalize the more austere spending plan.

During the meeting, though, he emphasized that council members must focus on “needs” rather than “wants” as they confront smaller-than-expected revenues.

The mayor has proposed compensating for the shortfall by raising property taxes by 3.85 percent. Ramos and 10 citizens who testified Monday night believe Missoula’s taxes are “out of control” and want to see budget cuts instead.

Renee Mitchell told council members that she’s tired of paying for a “nice park” and a “fancy bridge across Reserve Street” when streets in her neighborhood are in “terrible shape.”

“Do I look like an ATM machine?” she asked. “Does your neighbor look like an ATM machine? Do your parents? Do your children? Do your cousins, your coworkers? No, we are not ATM machines.”

“Do your job,” Mitchell scolded council members. “Control expenses, use the taxpayer funds wisely and don’t come asking for more every time you have a big fancy thing on your wish list that you want to build and enhance the city so we can get the outsiders in here. Let’s take care of the people who live here. I’ve been here since 1966.”

Mitchell is a former City Council member.

Jerry Ballas blamed Missoula’s Urban Renewal Districts and the tax increment financing they utilize to support development in once-blighted areas. That money should instead go into the general fund for police, fire protection and basic infrastructure, he said.

Ballas said the property taxes on his South Avenue East home have increased by 34 percent since 2012, and by 55 percent since 2008.

“I’m taxed enough already,” he said. “I’m about beat up.”

Ballas, too, is a former council member. He, too, spoke against any property tax increase.

Vondene Kopetski said in her 20 years as a Missoula resident she’s never seen the council sit down and talk about how to reduce expenses.

“You have a spending problem,” she said. “Why don’t you sit down and talk to all the department managers and ask them how they could cut their budgets? I’m guessing they probably have excess staff. I know there are duplications between what is provided by the city in the way of services and what is provided by the county in the way of services. It seems that we have reached critical mass here in Missoula.”

“I don’t know where you get your ideas,” said Pat Bristol, who complained about the light posts on Hillview Way and on the Madison Street Bridge.

Each has two medallions with the city’s name and a relief drawing of mountains. “I guess that’s so our deer know they live in Missoula, Montana,” she said. “That’s important.”

She asked to see the bills for the light posts, and was promised the information by the city clerk.

“In the future, we have to start doing things cheaper, with a little less flair,” Bristol said.

Later in the meeting, Ramos discussed the need to separate “needs” from “wants.”

Needs, he said, include roads, police and fire protection, and schools. Wants, Ramos continued, include additional parks, libraries and open space.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “This guy’s a jerk, he hates libraries, he hates parks.

“No, I will go out with you to ask for donations to build a park, or a library,” he said. “I will go out and ask people to voluntarily contribute. … But I do not want those projects that only a few can enjoy. You have all kinds of people who can’t enjoy the park.

“What I don’t want is for government to come down and hold somebody at gunpoint and tell them to pay their taxes. That is what I consider coercion.”

Government, Ramos said, shouldn’t be in the business of taxing citizens for “wants.”

In recent years, Missoula voters approved a $30 million bond for a new public library, as well as a $43 million bond for the development of Fort Missoula Regional Park. Those bonds added to property taxes, but all came with the consent of voters.

Following the meeting, Ramos shared an email exchange he had with Dale Bickell, the city’s chief administrative officer, asking for information on various city services that he’s considering for funding cuts.

How much does the city spend on aquatics? Ramos asked. How does the 1 percent for art program work? What kind of contract does the city have with Arts Missoula? Is it binding?

Other council members were vocal in their opposition to some of Ramos’ targeted cuts, most notably funding for new parks.

Councilwoman Heidi West said when she and her family moved to Missoula, her husband earned just $800 a month. The city’s parks and trails and open space were invaluable to her as the mom of young children.

“Part of what makes Missoula so wonderful is the parks and open space and trails,” she said. “Part of what’s important is that, through government, we share a certain equity among our neighborhoods.”

Councilman John DiBari said tax increment financing is working “quite well” and has resulted in the redevelopment of Urban Renewal Districts throughout the city.

He said none of those complaining about the proposed property tax increase mentioned the appreciation of their homes.

“It’s a shared benefit when we pay taxes to this community,” DiBari said. “And one of those benefits is the appreciation of home values in their neighborhood.”

The budget debate began a little more than a week ago, when local officials received the state Department of Revenue’s new taxable values.

Missoula netted $1.9 million in newly taxable property this year, though transferring Mountain Water to public ownership wiped $600,000 from the tax rolls. Adjustments from the Montana Department of Revenue served the biggest blow, consuming another $1.3 million.

“Essentially, we start with no new revenue,” Engen said at the time. “Until the Montana Legislature gets serious about helping its partners in local government diversify revenues and find new money, we’ll be cobbling together budgets like this one for the foreseeable future.”

Even with his proposed 3.85 percent increase in property taxes, the mayor said some city departments will lose their “extra” requests, including a technician to maintain traffic signals.

The proposal also eliminated an additional prosecutor from the City Attorney’s Office. The city’s clean energy initiatives would be placed on hold, as well as an administrative assistant in municipal court.