Missoula mayoral candidates talk property taxes, budgeting
(Missoula Current) While the Montana Legislature made several attempts to address the state's housing crisis and the cost of housing, another issue emerged shortly after – that being the state's large increase in the appraised value of properties and the increase in taxes some fear will come as a result.
The five candidates running to serve as the City of Missoula's mayor addressed the issue on Monday night. They were asked if the city provides a good value with the tax dollars it receives and how it could help homeowners burdened by high property taxes.
On average, the state increased the appraised value of housing in Missoula County by 40%, and most agree the state's tax system is complicated, hard to understand and results in little more that political finger-pointing.
But their views also varied on whether taxes are too high and if the city has room to reel in spending.
Does the city provide a good value for the taxes it recieves, and what would you do to help homeowners burdened by high taxes?
“Two years ago I would have said yes. My taxes have gone up in the last two years 40%. For somebody on a fixed income, how do you manage a 40% increase in your taxes? I don't see 40% more I'm receiving in services for my taxes.
“The tax system is messed up. It's antiquated. When I was growing up here, there was seven mills here and we had tons of revenue and now we have one (mill). Our tax system is flawed for sure.
“But the state only gets 6% of my tax bill. I'm not too concerned about what the state is raising. I'm concerned to see what (the city) is going to do to my tax bill. Right now, between the Urban Renewal Districts and city taxes, it's 65% of my tax bill. If you add in the local schools, it's 86% of my tax bill. The city is definitely my bigger problem.”
“Local governments have room for improvement, but this is a problem shared across all levels of government in Montana. Yes, the tax system is broken but it's also the field we're playing on. It means we have tough decisions to make.
“If inflation goes up and the cost of living goes up, then what it costs to pay a firefighter goes up. We don't get any more firefighters. We have the same number of firefighters. But the cost to employ them goes up.
“It's designed so you don't understand it, we don't understand it, and everybody can point fingers at everyone else. At the local level, we have to deal with that. We have to look at our budget and start priority-based budgeting, which means having tough conversations and trying to figure out what our priorities are and seeing if we're stretched too thin and trying to do too many good things for people and identify where we can look at things.
“I'm committed to at least once in every four-year-term doing a zero-based budget for every department to ensure we're eliminating any waste.”
“We did a zero-based budget some years before I was on City Council, and it was an exercise that was very challenging. There's a rhetoric that there's a spending problem at the local level. What there really is is a revenue problem. There's a problem with the diversity of revenue sources.
“Our property-tax system is based on an economy that doesn't exist anymore. We used to have multiple lumber mills running around-the-clock shifts, low property values and hardly any tourists. Now we don't have the industrial base. We have millions of tourists and our property values are soaring through the roof.
“We've seen the tax burden shift from commercial and industrial to residential. In 1999, it was about 40% residential in Missoula County and today it's around 60%. As the base changes, we're seeing more and more of a burden shift to homeowners and renters. It's something we need a systemic fix for at the state Legislature.
“There's a lot of finger pointing and a lot of waiting for the pain point to get so great that we stop voting for things like this world-class library. That is not how I think we need to do things here in Missoula. The city provides a tremendous value in the budget. The City Council leaves a lot of good proposals on the table because there's no capacity to fund the services our residents ask for.”
Does the city provide a good service? I would say yes, but also no. The no part is that we have a lot of people hurting in our community because that's the work I do every day. We need to be able to take a look at our budget.
“The complication of a zero-based budget, it's laborious. It's a lot of work. I've done that at my organization. We've needed to take our strategic goals and zero out the budget and build it up from there to understand what we can fund with our existing revenue. We can't do that across the city all at once. We can do that with one large department and one small department every budget cycle. We need to be able to do that to put some measurements in place and evaluate our performance.
“We need to start working on the 2025 legislature now. My experience as the chair of the Montana Housing Coalition is what offers a unique opportunity, because I've gotten legislation passed in the last three sessions.
“The circuit breaker is something that's been before the legislature before. It's something that would give both renters and homeowners a break in their expenses, because it's their income tied to the tax rate on the home. There's a lot of smart people out there working on this. The Legislature could reduce our residential (property tax) rate today.”
“There's so many weird things that have been said, so I'm going to say what needs to be said. I've been standing on the outside listening to everyone yell, everyone yell, about what we're spending money on. We're all in the same family. I like some things, you like some things, I want to feel good about this and you want to feel good about that, and we get this amount of money.
“I'm a little radical and I want to spend all the money on what I want. I don't care what you think and when you come in and say it, I'm not going to listen to you and I'm going to shut you down in three minutes. I'd like to see less of that.
“We're all stressed out and can hardly afford to live here anymore. Our kids are living in our houses in their 20s, and they don't want to be there as much as we don't want them there. At the end of the day, we're all in the same family. We all have an allotted amount of money we get to spend.”
Get to know your candidates for mayor