Being strategic: Missoula city leaders refine approach to budgeting season

City council members Heidi West, right, Julie Merritt, center, and Mirtha Becerra, left, participate in one of Wednesday’s strategic exercises. The city refined its approach to budgeting three years ago by holding a session intended to generate conversation among council members and city department heads. Also pictured is Leigh Griffing, the city’s finance manager (back), and City Attorney Jim Nugent. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When posed with four competing priorities, each with its own merit and community support, members of the Missoula City Council and local department heads were asked to select a single one.

Issues ranged from homelessness and housing to economic prosperity, climate change and maintenance.

“They all have valid points,” said council member Heather Harp when expressing the challenge of picking a single priority. “They’re a representation of our community. There isn’t one right way of thinking this through.”

“We have to do all of these things,” added council member Bryan von Lossberg. “The difficulty I think every organization faces is taking care of the dailies while carving out the time and resources to address the long-term strategic things.”

Breaking away from City Council chambers on Wednesday, city leadership gathered off site to begin crafting a strategic plan for the coming year.

Last year’s session resulted in a strategic framework, one that articulated Missoula’s collective vision, its mission and its guiding principles. This year, city leaders looked to put meat on the bone and carry that framework a little further.

“It’s an opportunity to reaffirm our shared sense of values and commitment and identify the priorities in the community, and to take into account any shifts we should be cognizant of,” von Lossberg said. “It’s an opportunity for two different bodies to approach those same issues from our respective places so we can be efficient, thoughtful and strategic in addressing those challenges and opportunities.”

City Council member Gwen Jones participates in Wednesday’s strategic planning session. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Members of the City Council gather each Monday and most of the day on Wednesdays to conduct official city business. It’s rare outside budgeting season for members of the council and the city’s department heads to come together in the same room to discuss current challenges and long-term goals.

But Wednesday’s exercise marked an exception, with department heads offering input on what they see as Missoula’s priorities, challenges and opportunities. Members of the council were there to listen.

“It helps department heads communicate their vision and mission opportunities, as well as challenges in achieving those,” said Donna Gaukler, director of Parks and Recreation. “It also helps us understand the role that council plays and the complexity and challenges it faces, so we can better provide them the information they need to help serve the community in the best way possible.”

As little as four years ago, members of the council often expressed frustration during the budgeting process, saying they knew too little about the needs and priorities of the city’s various departments. When those needs and priorities were presented at “the 11th hour,” it left the council facing difficult choices, especially when revenue isn’t enough to fund all needs.

It was time to take a more strategic approach.

“A big part of it, in advance of the budget season, is figuring out how to balance competing priorities, figuring out how to be strategic with expenditures, and making sure we’re providing services to the citizens of Missoula,” said council member Jordan Hess. “It’s making sure we have a good strategy to deal with the external challenges, whether it’s tax structure, climate change or housing costs – all the things we don’t necessarily control here in Missoula but we react to.”

Eran Pehan, director of the city’s Office of Housing and Community Development, participates in one of Wednesday’s exercises, intended to identify priorities and goals. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

When asked to state the city’s vision in a single word, a number of statements came to mind. They included quality of life, prosperity, livability and equity. Others offered justice, jobs and a welcoming city.

The budgeting process begins this spring.

“I see this as a team-building activity to help us understand what balance we’re trying to strike, and it’s an opportunity to hear from folks that I don’t always hear from,” said council member John DiBari.

“I always hear from many of my fellow council members, but I don’t always hear from the department heads,” he added. “They’re the ones who implement what we do, and it’s really important to understand what their values are and what the needs are of the folks they represent when delivering services to the community.”

Wednesday’s session marked the third year the city has held it, and while the exercises were largely esoteric and lofty, the purpose was clear. In a roundabout way, it helped city leaders clearly identify long-term goals and gain a holistic view of the city budget, before diving into it.

“The one-on-one in a less formal setting develops relationships so that when there’s real difficult situations, you’re able to talk one-on-one respectfully, with no question as to where council is coming from,” Gaukler said.

Jeremy Keene, the city’s new director of public works, also found the session valuable.

“It’s great to help understand where people’s goals are and how to help align goals, so if I bring something to the council I can better understand how to present it,” he said.