Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Citing public safety concerns, the Missoula City Council on Monday night officially passed a resolution placing a fire levy on the June ballot.

If passed, it would generate $7 million a year for the Missoula Fire Department and fund a new station and new fire company, and bring the department's response times within national standards.

“The time is now for a sixth engine company,” said Chief Gordy Hughes. “We'd hire those folks as quickly as we can to get them on the streets.”

Missoula has grown both in population and geography over the last two decades, but the fire department has not. It last added operational staffing in 2008 and is now struggling to keep up with the volume of calls.

As a result, its response times now lag two minutes beyond what's considered acceptable by the National Fire Protection Association.

“Our call volume has increased since the last station opened,” said Hughes. “Our workload and the availability of our resources for the next emergency coming into the 911 center – we're missing our mark.”

Voters will be asked to levy up to 34 mills to raise the annual funding. If passed, it would cost around $46 annually for every $100,000 in a home's assessed value. A median assessed home of around $413,000 would pay $189 each year.

Not a new concern

It's not the first time the department has asked for an increase in staffing. In each of the last several budgeting seasons, it has asked City Council to fund the new station and fire company. The council never did, and it's now asking voters to cover the cost.

“All of us around here recognize this is not an ideal situation,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “Growth in Montana does not pay for itself. This is not a Missoula problem, entirely. How we fund basic government and city operations, such as fire and police, is not keeping up with the base and more and more demand is being put on us at the local level. We're very limited in being able to fund things.”

The city is expected to face a challenging budget year, with current expenses outweighing available revenue. Some have placed the deficit at around $4 million and funding from the American Rescue Plan Act is no longer available to prop up a number of new city programs.

Many on council see few options other than asking voters to fund the fire department's needs. The city hasn't been able to do it with available revenue, several said.

“I wish we had better tools and different forms of revenue to fund our basic services,” said council member Gwen Jones. “It gets harder every summer until we have significant tax reform in our state. We have to use the tools that are in front of us.”

But several other council members accused the city of spending on wants while neglecting its true needs. Council members Bob Campbell and Sandra Vasecka suggested the city could cut unnecessary programs to fund the fire department without asking taxpayers for more money.

The city should focus on police, fire and infrastructure as its basic responsibilities, they said.

“Everything else is arbitrary until we can actually fund the mechanisms that make the city work,” said Vasecka. “It's insane this (fire department) isn't a priority of ours. We should be looking at how we can do this with what property tax dollars our coming in and what the public thinks their property tax dollars are going to.”