Seven people sat in the Lewis and Clark Village community room Wednesday night, all candidates in the two most crowded races in this fall's city elections.
Coincidentally, four candidates — Jon Wilkins, Chris Badgley, Greg Strandberg and Jesse Ramos — are running in Ward 4 and three — Jon Van Dyke, Tom Winter and Heather Harp — in Ward 3.
The candidates answered questions written by the more than 30 attendees on topics ranging from the city budget, to snow plowing, to the Day of the Dead parade.
“I don’t think there’s a huge disparity in the values between us,” Van Dyke said while looking at his Ward 3 opponents. “The difference is how we prioritize them.”
Harp said she’d be an advocate for the unprotected, and said her teaching experience and time as a financial advisor (along with service on various local boards) gave her a broad range of skills to lead Missoula.
Winter thought Missoula was at a pivotal point, which is what drew so many people to run.
The next five to 10 years could see Missoula becoming another Bozeman, or Jackson, Wyoming, he said, if the wrong decisions are made.
Wilkins leaned on his accomplishments, ticking off various ordinances he’d worked on over the last 12 years on City Council and the many times he’d personally looked into an issue after a constituent brought it up.
“I work hard for Ward 4 and I always have and I always will,” he said.
“I’m not gonna promise things that I can’t deliver,” Badgley told the crowd. “But I will make decisions based on information, on facts and based on what you all say.”
Strandberg came equipped with pages of numbers he’d culled from the city’s budget, citing around $27 million of spending (through Urban Renewal Districts, independent agencies like the parking division, and the general fund) he found unnecessary.
So much of that could go toward needed items, Strandberg thought, such as subsidizing housing or increased snow plowing services. Or, it could simply lower taxes.
Ramos as well focused on the budget. He works as a financial advisor (as has Harp) and rejected her opinion that there was little, or no, fat in the city budget.
“I don’t know where to begin,” he said. “There’s always fat to trim.”
The city’s total fiscal year 2018 budget was $209 million and Ramos thought there had to be ways to bring that down.
He brought up the idea of zero-based budgeting to start the yearly process.
“We have a spending problem, not a revenue problem,” Ramos said.
Wilkins said the majority of the tax increases came from voter-approved bonds, like the library, Fort Missoula Regional Park, the 2006 open space bond and others.
“Those are what your biggest increases are,” he said. “It’s not the city budget.”
Van Dyke proposed enlisting enthusiastic citizens to help the city in grounds keeping or street repair.
“Rather than cutting any full-time employees on staff, look for services that civic organizations can do, at no cost to the city,” he said.
Almost all agreed there needed to be more back-and-forth between the city and citizens during budgeting times.
Winter believed the City Council wants constituents to understand the budget, but that citizens also have a responsibility to read, investigate and learn about the process.
Wilkins agreed, saying he was tired of seeing two or three people during council’s Wednesday committee meetings, and then hearing all the complaints later.
Badgley suggested online question submissions during council meetings, so people wouldn’t have to be there in person to get an answer or give their comment.
Most were against the Missoula County Fairgrounds’ request to be included in an Urban Renewal District (URD), which would allow the county to apply for funds stored up from city taxes.
“I don’t see the necessity for it,” Van Dyke said, though he said he was excited about the proposed designs.
Ramos agreed and went further, calling URDs “deceptive,” and said it made no sense to have city taxpayers fund a county-wide redevelopment project.
Harp, while not strongly supportive, did say she was happy to see the county acknowledge the fairgrounds’ influence on that area of the city, and thought it was a good step to working together, rather than ignoring the relationship.
The city’s Office of Neighborhoods put on the forum, with mediator Cynthia Manning, from the Community Dispute Resolution Center, hosting.
Candidates from Wards 5 and 6, as well as mayoral candidates John Engen, the incumbent, and Lisa Triepke, will speak Thursday in the C.S. Porter school cafeteria, starting at 6 p.m.