Backed by a roster of citizens who professed their love for Missoula and appreciation for its leaders, City Council members voted 11-1 Monday night to adopt a $178.7 million budget.
Only Councilman Jesse Ramos voted against the Fiscal Year 2020 budget, insisting that the city should narrow its focus and that lower-income residents are being taxed out of their homes.
Nearly all the residents who testified during the council’s 90-minute budget deliberation disagreed with Ramos.
Loren Pinski, who lives on Pattee Creek Drive and is a retired homeowner, urged approval of a “fully funded budget” – even though he said his expenses and property taxes will go up and his buying power will go down.
Pinski said he first came to Missoula in 1967, stayed for 20 years, then had to leave – only to return again in 2009.
The Missoula he found “was a more livable, a more vibrant and a more exciting town than when I had left 20 years prior.”
“This is a great town, this is a great town that we live in, and it deserves to have a good, fully funded budget,” Pinski said. “It has grown and it is very livable, due in large part to people like you who are committed to making it a good place to live.”
“For all the things that this town has to offer, to simply take the lazy way out and cut benefits, saying you’re going to cut taxes, is going to destroy what this town has spent so many years putting together – a very exciting, livable, enjoyable town to live in,” he said.
“From one senior citizen on a fixed income, living in this town that I love, I am asking that you vote yes for the future of Missoula, yes for a livable, exciting, vibrant town, and yes for a fully funded budget,” Pinski said.
Mayor John Engen introduced Monday night’s discussion by announcing that the FY 2020 budget “is good news.”
“The story of the Fiscal Year 2020 budget is that the considerable hard work that many people in this community have engaged in over the years with regard to planning and investment and making this place a great place to live is showing dividends,” Engen said. “Our tax base has increased dramatically this year and because of that increase in tax base and the increase in newly taxable property that’s on the rolls, we have enough revenue to fund a variety of things that we have simply deferred over the years because we did not want to raise taxes excessively.”
Those additions include six additional police officers to serve a growing population and increased calls for service, an extra administrative support person for the police department to follow up on misdemeanor crimes, and an officer to focus on internet crimes against children.
There will also be an extra 5.5 employees for the city streets department, as well as additional snowplowing equipment. And when those new workers aren’t clearing wintry streets, they’ll be repairing “the potholes that you all occasionally tell me about,” the mayor promised.
FY 2020 will also bring a new employee to Missoula’s housing office who “will allow us to execute that important plan that will ensure that the folks we serve in generations to come have access to decent, safe, affordable housing.”
It also engages a couple of local organizations in the sustainability work “that you all have told me and members of this body, over and over, matters to you.”
There’ll be another employee in the sustainability office, helping to guide the city’s work to combat global warming.
“This is exciting,” Engen said.
Larry Riley, board chairman of Missoula Aging Services, stepped up to thank the City Council for its commitment to the organization and its 15,000 clients.
In 50 years as a Missoula attorney, Riley said, he had the opportunity to serve on a number of wonderful nonprofit boards.
“But I was really blown away by the dedication of the people who work at Missoula Aging Services,” he said. “The level of services they provide this community is unbelievable when you see all that is going on and all that they are doing.”
Karen Wickersham, chair of the Missoula County Democratic Party, noted the budget’s construction around “key community values that I support: public safety, the fire department, affordable housing, a clean environment.”
C.B. Pearson recounted his arrival in Missoula in 1982 and how much the city has changed since.
Among the most positive changes, he said – “the investment we have made in our community.”
Among the naysayers was Candi Matthew-Jenkins, who normally reads to the council from “The Soviet Art of Brainwashing.”
She took exception with the city’s spending on zero waste, energy efficiency and other climate-change efforts.
“If you all find out that climate change is a bunch of hooey, are you going to deduct it from the budget?” she asked. “You can’t change anything about the rain on Saturday. Where did that come from? Maybe it’s cleansing our air.”
But many others specifically applauded the city’s efforts to build a more sustainable community, resilient in the face of a warming planet, including Amy Cilimburg, executive director of Climate Smart Missoula, and Katie Deuel, executive director of Home ReSource.
Winona Bateman, a Ward 1 resident, said that as a mom she has “a lot to worry about in our culture” as she looks to the future.
“Hate is on the rise, we have mass shootings, we have a changing climate and a full-blown climate crisis on our hands,” Bateman said.
“When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out with their report, my thought at that moment was my daughter’s future is on fire. How am I going to put it out?”
“When we come together in a community and as human beings, not as Republicans, not as Democrats, but we come together and we view our future and what we want for our future as human beings on a livable planet, we have a lot of power. We’re all in it together. We all have to work as a team at this point.”
What does that have to do with the city of Missoula’s 2020 budget? “This budget represents my values and my vision and my hope for clean energy, zero waste and a livable future for my family and all of our families,” Bateman said.
“The city is making concrete investments in staff and partners in meeting our climate goals,” she said. “and we’re staffing fire and police, and we’re lowering the mill rate. When I think about the future, the vision that this budget represents is part of that picture.”
Engen and several council members emphasized in their remarks that – because of the increasing value of Missoula homes and the value of new development in 2019 – the city is actually lowering the mill rate assessed property owners.
That, however, provoked a lengthy commentary by Ramos, who said property owners will actually pay more in taxes in 2020 because of the state’s higher appraisal of their home or business.
“I just want us to be honest,” he said. “People don’t care about the mill rate. They care that they are going to have to shell out more money for their property taxes.”
Ramos dinged the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, the Tourism Business Improvement District, the use of tax increment financing to encourage development in once-blighted areas, and the city’s open space program.
Local government should focus its spending very narrowly, he said, suggesting police and fire and street maintenance as the key areas.
While Ramos engineered six hours of public testimony before the adoption of the Fiscal Year 2019 budget, he did not encourage a similar show of support this year. Nor did he offer any budget amendments on Monday night.
“I have very similar thoughts, very similar ideology,” Ramos said. “But there is no sense in wasting my time, your time by proposing amendments and getting them shot down.”