Ward 2 City Council candidates differ sharply on budget, affordable housing, gun laws

Incumbent Ward 2 City Councilwoman Mirtha Becerra, left, faced off with challenger Brent Sperry, right, on Wednesday night. (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

Although the two candidates running to represent Ward 2 on the Missoula City Council agreed that growth and related traffic issues are the biggest challenges facing their neighborhood, they disagreed on issues related to the city budget, affordable housing, tax increment financing, addressing climate change, helping the homeless and firearms restrictions. 

Incumbent City Councilwoman Mirtha Becerra faced off with challenger Brent Sperry Wednesday night at the final candidate forum hosted by Missoula’s Office of Neighborhoods and moderated by the League of Woman Voters.

Ward 2 includes Missoula’s westside, Grant Creek, Mullan Road and Pleasant View neighborhoods. 

Both candidates agreed that the city should wait for approval of a $23.2 million federal BUILD grant, and construction of new infrastructure in the Mullan and Reserve Street areas, before moving ahead with several proposed subdivisions.

“We have been waiting around now for a couple years for the BUILD grant to address traffic,” Sperry said. “I think maybe that’s from the city being reactive instead of being proactive. There’s no secret where we’re going to build in this town, and we only have so much space left to build on. The city needs to be more forward thinking.” 

Sperry said the city puts a lot of money into upgrading infrastructure for commercial buildings, and needs to do the same for neighborhoods. He also said Missoula could use more police to enforce traffic laws and safety concerns.  

Becerra said that when it comes to rezoning and development: “I feel very strongly that we cannot count our chickens before they hatch. I am really hopeful we will be awarded the BUILD grant, but I think we need to wait until that happens before we put in any more developments.”  

Regarding zoning for multi-family, high-density housing, the candidates disagreed. 

“I think we need to allow for that type of zoning throughout Missoula, just not everywhere in Missoula,” Sperry said. “There’s places it makes sense, where it’s close to infrastructure, but I don’t think we need to be slapping it into every neighborhood just to pay for infrastructure.” 

But Becerra said high-density zoning is the “equitable” thing to do.

“It eases the burden for those who can’t afford housing in our community,” she said. “I think there are some challenges, such as areas restricted by environmental constraints and opposition by homeowner associations, but I think we need to look all of our land and see how and where we’re going to address this very important issue that we’re facing today.” 

Becerra said she “absolutely” supports Missoula’s newly adopted affordable housing policy. “I’ve been involved in all the planning and stakeholder meetings, and looking at all the possibilities that we have, and making an inventory of all the tools that we have, in order to be as effective as possible in addressing this.”

Sperry said he supports some aspects of the affordable housing policy, but not others. “Anything that has to be subsidized by the city creates a larger problem,” he said. “There are a lot of people on the verge of being taxed out of their homes, and if they start seeing their taxes raised to subsidize housing for others, I think we’re going to create a bigger problem than we’re trying to fix.”

He mentioned the availability of a lot of apartments as affordable options, and suggested that people take a similar approach as he did when he started out.

“My first house was a trailer house on Mullan Road,” he said. “Then I sold that and moved to a house in Lolo because it was more affordable to live out there than the city of Missoula, and I just kept working my way up. It was about eight or nine years ago I was able to buy a house in Missoula. I don’t think that’s a bad route to take for new homeowners.” 

Becerra said there is a need for more diversity of options, including multi-family homes, “tiny homes” and single-family homes. “I also think we need more infill development, and need to think creatively and collaboratively,” she said. “Some of it will have to be funded through public resources, and some of it will have to be done through incentives.”

When asked what factors have been major contributors to the increased size of the city budget, Sperry said the city workforce is growing too large.

“In the latest budget, we’re planning to hire another 35 employees to the tune of $1.8 million, and that seems to happen year after year,” he said. “Currently, the city has about 630 or 640 employees.”

To reduce spending, Sperry said: “We need to stop the bleeding. Freeze the hiring. I think more steps like that will help us make do with what we have. I think all our department heads need to go through the budget and look at what we need, and where they can cut. I can guarantee every one of them can find places to trim and would go a long way in reducing our taxes.”

Becerra didn’t agree, and attributed  budget increases to growth. “The more people we have, the more services we need to provide,” she said. “Things also cost more than they used to. We need to pay our employees, and we need to increase our employees to meet the needs of a growing population. All those things add up to the question of how do we put more money in our budget?” 

Among her suggestions: “We need to take a hard look at our budget and see where we can save money,” Becerra said. “But I also think we need to diversify our tax revenue, and take a more serious look at tax reform. I think we need to look at the fact that we have a thriving tourist economy, and look at ways of taxing that in a way that is beneficial to our community. I think there’s a lot of room for conversation, and I think that could be a way to create an influx of revenue that could keep us from increasing taxes.”

Becerra said she is opposed to a state-wide sales tax, but would support a local sales tax if she were assured it would be a “benefit and not a burden” to the community. 

Sperry, on the other hand, said he was “completely against” a sales tax. “Tourists will be paying it during the four months or so of tourist season, but we’ll be paying for it the rest of the year,” he said. 

They also disagreed on the use of tax increment financing. 

“I’m against TIF funding,” Sperry said. “I think the revenue generated would go much further if it was directly going to the schools and other services from the get go. I think all the companies coming here are coming here for the exact same reasons we live here, because it’s a great city. I don’t think if they did not get help to put up a building that they wouldn’t build it.” 

Becerra called TIF is a good, successful business tool that has helped improve the Missoula community. “People want to move here, and people want to work here, because we have made great investments in our community,” she said.  

The candidates also differed on how the city should address climate change. 

“I think this should be up to individuals, and has to be voluntary, not mandated,” Sperry said. “I don’t think we need to start passing ordinances on plastic bags and things like that.”

Becerra said she was committed to the city’s goal of achieving zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050. “We need to allocate the funds to make that happen.” 

They also disagreed on providing more shelter for the homeless. 

“Places like the Poverello Center play a key role in our community,” Becerra said. “These are people in or community that need help, including families and children, and we need to find ways to help them.”

Sperry said he doesn’t think most of the homeless in Missoula are from here, but come from other places, and that providing help will only bring more homeless people here.

“I see Missoula as a mini-Seattle,” he said. “I don’t think building more facilities and services is a solution. It’s only going to magnify the problem.” 

Regarding firearms restrictions, such as requiring background checks for private gun sales in Missoula:

“I think we have a gun violence epidemic,” Becerra said. “We need to protect our community and our children. Access to guns needs to be better controlled.” 

Sperry disagreed. “We have a violence epidemic, not a gun violence epidemic,” he said. “Guns are just tools. We have a mental health crisis, and need to focus on that, not guns.” 

Ward 2 voters can decide between the candidates during the general election on Nov. 5. Ballots for the all-mail election will be sent to voters in October.