City Council begins six weeks of 2020 budget review with fire, court requests

City Fire Chief Jeff Brandt

The city of Missoula has started its six-week process of evaluating which departments and programs will receive more, and which less, funding in fiscal year 2020. So it’s important for residents to voice their opinions now.

“We’re encouraging people to understand that we need to hear from constituents now rather than at the tail end of the budget process,” communications director Ginny Merriam said Wednesday.

Merriam also emphasized that not all Missoulians’ property taxes go to the city, unlike what many residents assume. Only about 30 percent goes to the city; the county, schools and a few other recipients get the rest. In fiscal year 2019, the city budget planned for expenditures of about $171 million.

So the city has to stretch that 30 percent across eight divisions of city government and almost 650 full-time employees. The budget committee heard from the first two on Wednesday: the municipal court, which normally receives about 5 percent of the budget, and fire, which receives about 24 percent.

Representatives of both divisions cited Missoula’s rapid growth for their need for more money, facilities and personnel. Since 2010, the population has jumped more than 13 percent to 75,500. That’s putting a strain on the city’s services and employees.

Court administrator Tina Reinicke said her division needs three additional employees to deal with the public, new computer systems and to provide for career opportunity within the division. So the court is requesting about $70,000, along with a one-time expenditure of $3,300.

Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks

Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks said Missoula now has one of the busiest criminal courts in the state, running neck-and-neck with Billings. The court might become even busier if Missoula had more police and if there weren’t so many no-show defendants, Jenks said.

Another challenge is an increasing number of defendants who are mentally ill, Jenks said. She’s seen an increase since the state Legislature cut funding to mental-health services, and it’s increasing the burden on the courts. Many who are severely mentally ill don’t understand the situation they are in, and their reactions can scare court employees, and some end up quitting, Jenks said.

“I’ve been doing criminal law for more than 20 years, and we are having such an incredibly high number of severely mentally ill people that the court is forced to deal with. I’ve never seen it this bad in the time I’ve been here, and I don’t expect that to be getting any better,” Jenks said. “Everyone in Montana needs to understand that when you cut those services, those people will end up being an expense to communities in a different way.”

Missoula’s single court is running at capacity and the city may need to increase the number of full-time judges to two. But in the meantime, more is needed just to serve the one full-time and two part-time judges, Reinicke said.

“Space needs is one of our most pressing issues. We are working to capacity. If we had a third judge and third courtroom, we could do more,” Reinicke said.

Missoula Fire Chief Jeff Brandt had a slew of requests, from $33,000 for new body armor to additional mechanics and a $52,000 truck-exhaust filtration system to keep firefighters from breathing fumes in the firehouse when the trucks start up.

Since 2011, the number of fire incident calls in Missoula has increased by 50 percent to 8,650 in 2018. So Brandt also asked for more money for overtime pay to fund a “peak activity unit,” which is an ambulance available during the peak call times on Friday and Saturday.

“The main point of this is keeping our other engines in service to respond to higher urgency calls,” Brandt said.

Some of the things Brandt requested have languished for a number of years, such as a $10,000 storage area to park excess equipment. So Brandt asked the committee to consider allowing the department to put the revenue it earns while helping out on state or federal fires into a special account that can be used for department needs.

“It gives the department the ability to prioritize the needs, whether that’s facilities or large equipment purchases,” Brandt said. “The revenue account has the ability to roll and gain, so when we’re looking at our needs, we can plan and save for those rather of coming back to the general fund and making those requests.”

Mayor Jon Engen said budget presentations at next few meetings provide the council a sense of where priorities are, because not all new requests can be funded by the budget.