Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) One freshman member of the Missoula City Council voted against paying the city's bills this week while criticizing what he believes is a lack of transparency in the budgeting process.

In response, more tenured members of City Council said the bills are easily viewable, if one puts in the effort. Also, several claims resulting in this week's large sum represented one-time bills related to insurance and the pandemic, they added.

Each week, the City Council reviews and approves the city's bills, or claims related to running a municipality. They range from engineering services for water to fuel purchases and other contracts. They're listed line by line and include the vendor's name, a description of the claim, the department to which it belongs and a final sum.

This week, however, the claims topped more than $3.1 million – a sum that's unusually high for weekly payments. City Council vice president Stacie Anderson said the sum was elevated due to claims related to liability insurance and the pandemic.

“We reimbursed the county for just a little over $1 million in Covid expenses. It's part of our interlocal agreement as we were addressing the global pandemic,” Anderson said. “It came in under what we were anticipating. It's something we knew was going to happen at some point as the books were sorted out for our Covid response.”

Anderson said the city's $1 million payment for liability insurance also covers fiscal years 2023 and 2024.

“Those two items right there are over $2 million,” Anderson said. “That's not something that's ongoing.”

Despite the explanation, council member Daniel Carlino voted against paying the claims, saying he didn't see them in the city budget. Not paying the claims would leave a wide range of people who contract with the city for various services unpaid.

Carlino suggested the city budget “is not very transparent.”

“We don't even know about many of these items until they come on to our plate under the consent agenda, where everyone just votes unanimous yes,” Carlino said. “I can't vote for claims that I never saw in the budget.”

Carlino's suggesting that the city wasn't transparent with its spending prompted several council members to argue otherwise, including council member Gwen Jones who told Carlino, “You always have the option of emailing our finance department to get more information so you know exactly where it is in the budget.”

Anderson also said the claim sheets can be viewed by anyone and the process is transparent.

“I have found them very straight forward and easy to understand, and for the ones I don't understand, I ask and get a very satisfactory answer,” she said. “I want to be conscientious that we're not misconstruing this or suggesting there's something nefarious happening there. There is a process and it's pretty easy to track.”

Council member John Contos added, “People need to hear things like that so they can rest assured that we're not spending money foolishly.”