Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) In a four-hour show of priorities and opinions, the Missoula City Council on Wednesday considered a long list of amendments to the new city budget that would either add new costs or cut them.

Council member Sandra Vasecka introduced several amendments to remove funding from the FY24 budget, saying the programs were either unnecessary or unproven and only served to add costs at a time when taxes were rising sharply.

However, all of her efforts failed.

“A lot of my colleagues and the mayor say the tax system is fundamentally broken. So how do we take that into consideration and make this into a lean budget as advertised until this broken system is fixed?” Vasecka said. “These amendments are my attempt at making that happen.”

As proposed, the city budget will increase a Missoula resident's city tax bill by 9.7% and it currently includes $6.7 million in new revenue. Taxes imposed by Missoula County, local and state schools and other sources haven't yet been factored in.

With the increase in mind, Vasecka sought to cut $100,000 from the city's pursuit of a renewable rate option, saying renewable technology “wasn't quite there yet” to justify the cost.

She also sought to remove $42,000 in city funding for lobbyists during the Legislature, but that was tabled on a 9-2 vote. She also worked to remove $12,000 in funding for software purchased by the city to track tourist homes in Missoula.

“It's inappropriate and an invasion of privacy to ask people to pay a fee to track what you're doing with your own home,” Vasecka said. “This is my last-ditch effort to not fund it this year.”

Vasecka also sought to remove $147,000 from the city's Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion program, saying the outcome couldn't be measured and wasn't justified in a year when city taxes are set to rise.

That failed, as did her effort to provide members of City Council with a pay increase. She said council members weren't fairly compensated for the time they spent on the job.

Council members Kristen Jordan and Daniel Carlino agreed, with Carlino saying the current $15,000 in compensation was "not enough income to even get a (renter) application approved.” But others disagreed and the motion for a pay raise was tabled.

The increase would have been paid for by taking $12,000 from the mayor's salary.

“If it was more money, our motivation might be a whole lot different,” said council member John Contos, who opposed the pay increase. “I look at Congress today and the amount of money those guys make is completely insane. If you want to be on City Council, it's because you want to be on City Council. I feel like the motivation people have to serve on City Council for that amount of money is great, and it keeps people honest.”

Efforts to increase spending

While Vasecka sought to cut funding, Carlino introduced a range of budget amendments that would increase funding. That included an extra $20,000 for traffic circles and $235,000 for additional homeless shelters.

Carlino said he was pleased the city was funding another shelter to the tune of $1.7 million. But in addition, he wanted additional funding to purchase 15 pallet shelters and another bathroom unit to establish a homeless camp.

He sought to fund it in part by removing funding the city has earmarked to enforce urban camping.

“We should fund these (pallet shelters) in a revenue-neutral way to take funds from camping response,” he said. “I'm asking us to invest more in camping prevention than camping response.”

City housing officials said that while additional shelter capacity was needed, there was no space to place more pallet shelters. And without the service providers to staff the shelters, there was no way to add more responsibility to city staff.

Interest doesn't equate to capacity, said Emily Armstrong, the city's homeless specialist.

“If they (nonprofits) were able to do that at this time, they may have already done it,” she said. “We don't have the capacity in our provider community to be able to stand up and operate another 15 units of that capacity. The Temporary Safe Outdoor Space is already understaffed.”

Carlino's request for more shelters was tabled and it drew frustration from other council members, who called it an unrealistic request.

“We're having to have this conversation that's completely unrealistic, and there's going to be a follow up that we're a bunch of bad guys because we don't care about putting shelter beds over people's heads,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “That's absolutely not the case. But we have to work with what's actually attainable.”

Carlino also sought to add $37,000 to the budget to continue a pilot program exploring a herbicide-free approach to manage turf in parks. His request was reduced to $21,000, which gained support and was the only budget increase to pass.

It amounts to a $0.13 increase on the taxes of a $100,000 home.

“I appreciate a management technique that really builds the overall soil health and ecosystem health,” said council member Heidi West. “I think it's a worthwhile investment.”

Still, the increase wasn't unanimously supported. While the herbicide experiment was a good program, the city has a number of good programs that aren't getting funded this year, opponents said.

“A 9.7% increase in our spending is already too much,” said council member Mike Nugent. “We already have areas that are struggling. I don't think we can keep adding. There are wants versus needs here, and we need to keep that in mind.”