By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

While it wasn't unanimous, the Missoula City Council on Monday passed a resolution asking the county to place a Crisis Services Levy on the November ballot and, by doing so, let the voters determine if the programs funded by the levy are a priority and worthy of a tax increase.

The resolution, which passed on an 8-2 vote, also rekindled frustrations with Montana's tax system, which leaves cities and counties to raise taxes on property owners to cover basic needs while the state sits on a $1 billion surplus, according to city officials.

“We're working with a tax code developed decades ago for an economy that doesn't exist anymore,” said council member Jordan Hess. “But unfortunately, it's what we've got, so we're asking the voters if they value these (crisis) programs.”

Missoula County commissioners voted last week to place the Crisis Services Levy on ballot. If passed, the levy will raise 20 mills, or around $5 million a year, to fund a range of services the city and county created using federal pandemic funding.

Now, with that funding set to expire, the programs need long-term revenue to survive. No one disputed the value of the programs, which range from homeless camps and shelters to the Crisis Response Team and mental health.

But some believe that asking the taxpayers to pay more to fund such programs should be a last resort, which hasn't yet arrived.

“I think we can find funding in our budget where we could switch projects around and actually fund these programs,” said council member Sandra Vasecka. “I can't support adding an additional tax to our constituents. With the supply chain issues, increasing property taxes, increasing prices on groceries and gas, it's hard on everyone.”

Vasecka said the city and county's decision to use one-time federal funding to start new programs, knowing long-term funding would be needed, was something of a “bait and switch.” It created excitement and support for the programs and effectively put taxpayers in a corner, leaving them with the choice of either cutting the programs or raising taxes once federal funding dried up.

Other opponents of placing the levy on the ballot said the city and county could be “more creative” in finding revenue beyond a tax increase on property owners. And since the county has already decided the issue, some believe the city should remain neutral.

“It's going to add to another crisis we have going on in Missoula and Missoula County, which is the repressive, non-progressive property tax rates that are greatly stressing out and causing much housing insecurity for the elderly, the disabled and the retired, and other long-time and fixed-income Missoula homeowners,” said resident Kevin Hunt. “This isn't a creative solution.”

Hunt suggested that asking taxpayers for more, including the $19 million fairgrounds bond that will also appear on the November ballot, will eventually foment a conservative backlash that could cause problems for the city and county down the road.

Among them, he noted measures to cap property taxes, like Proposition 13 in California or the failed effort by several Montana Republicans to place a property tax-cap on the November ballot.

But supporters of placing the measure before voters said that under the state's current tax system, the city and county had no other tools to support vital programs other than a tax increase.

Finding funding within the city and county's existing budgets would lead to cuts elsewhere, they said. Two progressive members of the City Council have argued that funding should come from the police department.

But that hasn't been widely received as an option.

“The idea of thinking creatively is a euphemism for cutting something and to me, police, parks and streets, and the nuts and bolts of government, are not pet projects,” said Hess. “The City of Missoula operates efficiently, effectively and on a lean margin. We're working in a dysfunctional revue environment in the state of Montana.”

Council member Gwen Jones agreed.

“If we had other tools to use to fund these necessary programs, we'd be using them. We have a very dysfunctional, broken tax system that needs attention. We're going to have a very difficult budget session as we do our budget, and a great many cities across Montana are in the same situation as us while there is a huge surplus at the state level.”