Missoula Councilman Ramos: High taxes are turning city into elitist enclave

Missoula City Councilman Jesse Ramos

On Monday evening, the Missoula City Council voted against me with a vote of 9-1 to raise your taxes by nearly 4 percent. Throughout the budgeting process, I offered a variety of cuts that would have allowed our core functions of government to remain fully funded and also resulted in a lower tax for the hardworking people of Missoula.

What I believe to be core functions of government are police, fire and general infrastructure. In fact, if we focused more on those and less on the “wants” of our elected officials, your taxes would be far lower, and those very services would be better funded.

So let’s jump into some key takeaways from Monday night. The first thing that I want to get into is that the tax increase was blamed on the Montana Department of Revenue having lower than expected property valuations. What this means is that the value of your home was lower than expected, meaning that you are paying less tax than you would have if we had seen a valuation increase.

Let me be clear, the city was still relying on you paying just as much money in taxes as was proposed, the only difference is that the tax increase would have come from a valuation increase as opposed to a mill levy increase.

Ultimately, this is ideal for elected officials as they can still get more of your money without raising the mills levied. Let me be clear, the city of Missoula does not have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem, and the only way to fix our tax burden is to reduce our spending. If spending increases, so will your tax bill, regardless of whether it comes from a valuation hike or a mill levy hike.

So how do we reduce our spending? During the budgeting process, I proposed shifting taxpayer funding to many outside corporations — to the private sector. For example, the city gives $195,000 a year to Arts Missoula which I suggested we cut. This is not to say that I do not love the arts; in fact in my opinion, this is preserving the greatest part of art — independence from the government and politics. Art is something that gives society hope and expression through many wars, presidents, and historical events.  Arts Missoula already receives the majority of its funding from the private sector. What I was suggesting was simply asking them as a nonprofit corporation to shoulder the burden and the risk of fundraising.

My goal is to give more economic freedom to the citizens of Missoula. In a recently released study by a liberal think tank, Missoula ranked 33rd in the United States of America for income inequality. The reason for this is not hard to find. If you compare a $330,000 home in the city of Missoula to both Bozeman and Billings, you will find that the home in Missoula pays between $1,000 and $1,500 more. If we are generous and say on average the gap is $800 and multiply that by the roughly 30,000 taxable properties in Missoula, you will find that our governments take about $25 million more out of the economy than our neighboring cities.

That is money that a young couple could use to buy a new home, that a single mom could start a college savings plan for her children, that a business owner could increase an employee pay, etc. The lost opportunity cost of that $25 million is infinite and it is showing in our struggling community. Almost on a daily basis, I hear a story of a retiree, a single mom, or a low-income citizen being taxed out of their home.

Ultimately, Missoula should be a city in which everyone can afford to live in even if that means we have to forgo some things that our elected officials want. I will help you go out and raise money for a new park, a walking bridge, arts, etc. but I do not want to force our low income to pay for things that the government wants. If we can use taxes for core services and allow voluntary exchanges to fund the “wants,” our city will continue to be a city for all, not just the elite.

I compare our city to a country club and do not do so lightly. Country clubs have a pool, our city funds our aquatics park; country clubs have walking bridges over streams and sand traps, we have one over Reserve; country clubs have parks, our city is overflowing with them. Country clubs are nice, but not everyone can afford a membership. We are finding more and more people who cannot afford the membership of Missoula: our retirees, our low-income, our single parent households. We have gotten to the point where we have to ask ourselves what kind of community do we want to be?

Do we want to be a city where the middle- and lower-income earners have to move out and wealthy third-home-buying folks move in and shoulder the tax burden? Making this community a place for all will require some sacrifices, but the alternative is already happening and we must ask ourselves, is that who we are?

Jesse Ramos represents Ward 4 on Missoula’s City Council.