Mike Nugent 

Missoula voters face an important decision on June 4. The Fire Department needs our support to continue serving our community effectively. The Fire Levy on the ballot will help fund additional firefighters, our state-leading Mobile Support Team, and the construction of a sixth fire station. Missoula hasn't added new firefighter positions since 2008, and as our community grows, response times—which save lives—are under increasing pressure.

It is not altogether uncommon for a current or former state legislator to not understand local government funding or even the difference between property tax revenue and non-tax revenue in a budget. It is unfortunate when misunderstandings are the basis for commentary or state-level decisions.

Intentionally using misleading information to gaslight Missoulians at the expense of our first responders deserves to be called out. Our public safety is too important. In a guest opinion by former legislator Brad Tschida published on May 21 encouraged not supporting the Fire Levy based on arbitrary and contrived budget numbers and criticized "horrible fiscal management" without citing a single specific example. The author threw out a large number and multiplied it over 15+ years to arrive at a scary billion dollars of mysterious spending but provided no specifics.

Why not, you ask? Perhaps the goal is to confuse Missoulians into thinking everything that is in the City budget is paid for by property tax revenue (It isn’t). And that the numbers he references from the Frontier Institute even provide an accurate view of the Missoula City budget (They don’t).

The statement that the annual city budget totals $268 million is simply not true. The suggestion that Missoula is overspending tax dollars by $97 million is ludicrous. The TOTAL tax dollars collected by the City of Missoula in the last fiscal year was $59,414,846. $59 million is an amount we take seriously as elected officials, but it is important to call out misleading information.

Missoula is only collecting about 22 percent of the amount in taxes the editorial implied. To get to that large number the Frontier Institute is including reserve accounts, ending fund balances, funded and in-progress capital projects, revenue from non-tax sources, and even fund transfers between accounts to imply that money is being collected every year, but it is not.

City budgets are complex, with significant portions not funded by tax dollars. For example, enterprise funds like Missoula Water are self-sustaining, covering their operating expenses and acquisition costs through fees such as water bills. These funds are included in the total City budget despite not relying on taxes. Additionally, grants for infrastructure projects, fees from building permits and business licenses, park rentals, and more contribute to City revenue, covering expenses without using property tax revenues.

Another often misunderstood aspect of the city budget is that not all revenue can be used for any purpose. For example, taxes collected for the road and parks districts, which are part of the $59 million number, must be used specifically for those purposes. We can't legally transfer Park District funds to public safety.

State law limits property tax increases for the general fund to half the rate of inflation over the previous three years. This means the city couldn't have raised total taxes by an average of $50 million a year, as it exceeds state limits.

The needs of the Fire Department are real, and those needs should not be coopted for personal campaigns and misleading constructs. There is nowhere in the budget that we will find $7 million to meet this moment without help from the voters. The tax system in Montana is set up to give voters the opportunity to weigh in on these needs as they arise.

Communities across Montana, including more conservative areas such as Kalispell, have asked their voters for similar approval to better support fire departments or public safety. This is not a blue or red issue; it’s a public safety issue.  I am proud to stand with the men and women of the Missoula Fire Department as they strive to save lives and serve Missoulians.

Mike Nugent is a tax payer and small business owner. He represents Ward 4 on the Missoula City Council.