Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) The two candidates vying for the title as Missoula's next mayor touched on their priorities Tuesday in a forum that covered housing, taxes, the local economy, and government needs versus wants.

Both also touched on their business experience and argued the need for expanded and affordable childcare to ensure working parents can remain on the job.

Mike Nugent and Andrea Davis took home the top vote totals in the September primary and one will become the city's first new elected mayor in nearly two decades. Whoever prevails will fill the remaining two years of former Mayor John Engen's term.

Among other things, Nugent spoke on housing, saying Missoula needs more affordable opportunities. The city must also make funding for essential services, like roads, police and fire, and mobile response to mental health crises, a top priority.

But taxes remain an issue, and the city will have to weigh its wants versus its needs, he said, speaking to a sold-out audience at City Club Missoula.

“The path we're on in Missoula, and throughout Montana, is unsustainable. You'll hear often that the system is broken at the state level, and it absolutely is,” he said. “But the reality is, I'm not running for the state Legislature. I'm running for mayor. We need to find solutions that take some of the pressure off the seniors who are worried about being taxed out of their homes. I firmly believe that starts in the mayor's office.”

Davis touched on similar issues as well, naming childcare, the cost of living and the need for affordable housing. On taxes, she said the city will need to work with the Legislature for reform.

She agreed that the local tax burden was at a breaking point.

“This is a systemic issue. We're dealing with a legislative choice from the 1990s, and it has come home to roost very significantly for us,” said Davis. “I'm committed to having very transparent conversations with you as we move forward to make very tough budget decisions, along with City Council. We're at a place where we're at a breaking point for people.”

When asked for specifics on taxes, including their views on the growing tax burden and what, if anything, they would cut, neither named a specific area where cuts could be made. But there were hints within their words.

Davis, who when answering a separate question said she wouldn't cut the police department, said she wasn't in a position to name specific areas to cut. But if elected mayor, she said the city must look at efficiencies and areas where it can trim costs.

“We have a structural issue that has really teed up carrying forward a balance in the red,” she said. “There is a shift from other types of classified taxpayers in our state, largely large corporations and big businesses, that have shifted to residential property taxpayers. That's the backdrop from which we're operating. What I can give you as a commitment is an early and transparent (budgeting) process.”

During the pandemic, both city and county government in Missoula received tens of millions of dollars in funding from various federal sources, including the CAREs Act and the American Rescue Plan. They used that funding to tip a number of new programs and new positions.

But now, the funding has dried up and the city is facing a budget shortfall as high as $4 million going into next year with no way to fund some of the programs it began with federal funding. Balancing that budget is going to require some difficult conversations, and it may mean some programs won't get funded.

“We need to look at how our local government grew during Covid. We received a lot of federal money and we created a lot of new positions and programs with ARPA dollars,” said Nugent. “Some of those (programs) need to find their way into our budget. But others we need to evaluate, knowing it was intended to be one-time funding and can we afford to still do that.”

Nugent added that he'd commit the city to priority based budgeting to fund what residents expect and fill in the remaining gaps with what's available. He also said elected officials need to be more careful about what bonds they place before voters.

“We're going to have to get used to having uncomfortable conversations about priorities,” he said. “I'd like to see us shift to priority based budgeting and shift to zero-based budgeting over the four-year mayor's term to rebuild departments from the ground up to make sure what we're doing now makes sense, and if something we implemented 20 years ago still makes sense.”

Davis added, “I see the challenges and feel the challenges, too. We both see what Missoulians are bringing forward in terms of what Missoulians are facing in cost of living.”

Mayoral candidates disclose business ties, talk economic growth (