The Missoula City Council adopted its 2016 fiscal year budget on Monday night, but not before a lengthy discussion on taxes, the cost of services, and ways to improve what one council member described as a broken process.
The new city budget will result in a tax increase of 5.69 percent, costing the owner of a $225,000 home an additional $42 a year in property taxes.
“The idea that our budget is simply keeping up with inflation is simply not true,” said Ward 2 council member Adam Hertz. “We have structural problems within our city budget, and we spend too much on things we don’t need.”
Hertz criticized the city for not taking what he described as holistic approach in drafting its annual budget. Instead, he said, the council is left debating the mayor’s executive budget and whether to add or subtract certain services.
Hertz cast the only vote against adopting the 2016 budget. While other council members voted to approve the budget, some did so with reluctance.
“We should spend more time looking at the services we get from the city,” said Ward 6 council member Ed Childers. “But the only way taxes can’t go up is if all the things people want in services didn’t cost any more, ever.”
Over the past two months, the council has worked through the budget, adding some items and removing others. As initially proposed by Mayor John Engen, the 2016 budget sought to raise taxes 4.9 percent to maintain current level of service.
As the process played out, the council added small projects, including $20,000 to study traffic on 5th and 6th Streets. It increased funding for street maintenance and repair, and added roughly $2,038 to raise the minimum wage for city employees to $12 an hour.
At the same time, council members also removed $60,000 for a part-time Missoula Municipal Court judge. It didn’t fund a needed crime victim advocate or victim witness coordinator, and it reduced funding to the Moon Randolph homestead.
“It shows a great deal of care and a tremendous amount of commitment to service and community,” said Ward 1 council member Jason Wiener of the budgeting process. “You can call me a socialist if you don't like my politics, but don’t ever call me apathetic.”
Two members of the public addressed the council during public comment before it voted on adopting the 2016 budget. Both spoke against the 5.69 percent tax increase that comes with the budget.
Linda Wolfe said her family currently pays $20,000 a year in property taxes for its home and small business. She said the added increases come every year, and they’re beginning to add up.
“It keeps going up, up, up, up, up,” said Wolfe. “I’m a supporter of organizations and paying taxes, but we have to keep raising our rent because our taxes keep going up. We’re ready to move. You need to stop trying to tax people to death.”
Candy Matthew-Jenkins also criticized the city for its latest tax increase.
When coupled with last year’s 3.8 percent tax increase, the recently passed $42 million Parks and Trails Bond, the proposed $158 million Missoula Public Schools bond and a pending library bond, she said the burden had reached the breaking point.
“We’re not free when we’re shackled with taxes of 5.69 percent above the (3.8 percent) we had previously,” said Matthew-Jenkins. “You’re sucking the life out of Missoula’s landowners. These are your taxes, and it’s a shame you’re pushing families out of Missoula because they can’t afford to live here.”
Ward 3 council member Alex Taft disagreed with those who opposed the budget, as it was adopted. He said the city was on an upward trajectory, had recovered from the recession and that development figures continue to improve daily.
“Here we are, in a position to provide more services to our citizens at a time when many will benefit from the economic development we’re seeing,” said Taft. “Frankly, I disagree with the no-more-taxes approach toward government. I think our government provides great services to our citizens.”