It might seem strange to nitpick a nearly 60 percent win in an election.
As Mayor John Engen pointed out last week, most people would be happy with 51 percent.
“It was a strong showing and what I take from that is, while a majority of Missoulians believe in the vision and the work we’ve been doing, and what we’ve been doing, there are clearly concerns out there,” Engen said.
Those concerns manifested themselves in his opponent’s campaign. Lisa Triepke, a local director for CostCare, ran on a platform based on the idea that Engen’s 12 years in office have been a spend-happy boon — for him, not for taxpayers.
Triepke garnered nearly 41 percent of the vote in the Nov. 7 election, the strongest showing by far for a challenger of Engen’s, the first to hold him below 60 percent in a win, to 58 percent.
So it merits asking Engen if he took seriously the show of opposition. As he’s said many times, the performance review for his job is the election, and while 58 percent approval is great, 41 percent disapproval — for the first time in his career — may say something as well.
Last week, in his City Hall office, Engen sat by the window in a zip-up sweater and didn’t hesitate to say what he heard from his opponent and her supporters.
Loud and clear, and more than than he’s ever heard, Engen said, was that “property taxes are an issue.”
“As a function of the campaign, no one was really able to present a viable alternative,” Engen said. “My job for the next four years is to figure out ways to better strike that balance.”
He’s already had people in his office, showing their tax bills, their valuation notices from the Montana Department of Revenue, pointing out percentage increases that make eyes go wide.
The Missoulian, through emails and letters to the editor, has heard from multiple property owners of tremendous valuation increases in the past year, on properties that have been owned for decades.
“It’s hard to connect the dots there,” Engen said. “It’s hard for the property owner to connect the dots and frankly, it’s challenging for us to connect the dots.”
He’s committed to working out how Missoula’s growth — a nearly $2 billion increase in taxable value in the past few years — has also meant skyrocketing property values for people who simply haven’t ever seen such an increase.
“Taxation is complicated,” he said. “We haven’t done a great job of explaining it, and in some cases we need some additional explanation from the state.”
It’s an opportunity, Engen thinks, to work with other cities and towns similarly hobbled to lobby the state for relief and explanations.
A key part of the plan starts with alternative revenues.
Engen, as well as several members of the Missoula City Council, have talked in recent weeks about petitioning the state Legislature to increase the population cap for local-option sales taxes, used in towns like Whitefish to offset property taxes and take advantage of a strong tourist economy.
Right now Missoula isn’t eligible, but Engen already has plans for how to shape a local-option tax to best help Missoulians.
Take a look at Whitefish.
A town of roughly 7,000, Whitefish voted to enact a local-option tax more than 20 years ago.
It started at 2 percent, and was applied to touristy items, such as hotel rooms, restaurants and drinks and retail items, according to a Flathead Beacon article from 2016.
In 2015, the town approved a 1 percent increase, which brought their two-decade total haul to more than $30 million, from just $770,000 its first year to $2.5 million in 2016.
In the story, Whitefish City Manager Chuck Stearns credited a lot of the growth to newly built hotels, which bring a steady flow to the sales tax fund.
Missoula’s hotel industry is looking up in 2017, with the Marriott being built on the former Mercantile site and a massive hotel/conference center planned at the Riverfront Triangle.
By the time the Legislature allows cities Missoula’s size to enact such a tax, and by the time Missoulians vote on the option, Missoula will have more taxable tourist economy items than it does now. If the city’s tourism office has its way, many more people will visit from cities like Dallas and Chicago to spend their money here.
“It most heavily impacts tourists,” Engen said. “It works in other jurisdictions. This isn’t a kooky idea dreamed up by a tax-and-spend liberal.”
Aside from infrastructure relief, Engen said any local-option tax plan brought to voters would have a property tax relief portion, to pay Missoulians back on a pro-rata basis.
Whitefish, again, has done this. Nearly $8 million — from 1997 to 2016 — was refunded to Whitefish taxpayers from the local-option tax account.
“What I won’t do is just ask people to pay more money without getting relief,” Engen said.
He’s not worried about Missoula's growth spiraling out of control, though, like other fast-growing (and admittedly much larger) western cities like Seattle, Denver or San Francisco, whose focus on tech-based jobs has left old-timers and those in the economic margins behind while expensive housing is built as fast as possible to meet demand.
Engen believes Missoula is growing, not booming, which is a manageable growth.
“I do not want to be Boulder, Colorado. I don’t want to be Bozeman,” he said, pointing out some regional examples. “There are cities that are not paragons of affordable housing and inclusive economies. We’re being intentional about that.”