Missoula County Commissioners approved Tuesday the budget for the 2020 fiscal year, with homeowners expected to pay about 11% more in county property taxes.
The increase comes despite the county lowering its tax rate slightly, but the bump stems from a spike in property values this year.
Commissioner Josh Slotnick said one of the county’s priorities needs to be finding new ways to fund the services it provides beyond raising property taxes.
“The cost of providing services through local government increases faster than our ability to pay for those costs. The time of reckoning is basically now,” Slotnick said at last week’s public hearing. “Property tax as a tool is basically maxed out. And I'm hoping over the next year we will come up with new ways to generate revenue. So instead of limiting services, we add new revenue. No one clamors for a reduction in services.”
The county began using a new system when building its budget this year, allowing the county to more accurately predict the cost of doing business as usual. The "sustainment" budget, as it was dubbed, can be examined, and then commissioners can choose to grant increases carefully from there.
Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said he, Slotnick and Commissioner Juanita Vero were particularly modest this year in what increases in funding they approved for individual departments as the county moved toward a focus on sustainability.
“We might have more ability to do things this particular year than what we are actually including in this budget,” Strohmaier said. “But if we do so, we might be putting ourselves in jeopardy a year or two or three from now when we know there will be other costs and expenditures and obligations coming down the pike.”
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Strohmaier noted there is always a chance of a downturn in the economy, or any other outside force that would cause tax revenues to go down, leaving the county without enough money to pay all the bills. Because of this, he said there were a number of new funding requests or funding increases that were denied or frozen at the previous year’s levels.
Proposed increases that were approved include:
- One new sheriff’s deputy for courtroom security
- Another building inspector
- An additional road and bridge maintenance worker
- Moccasin Lane bridge replacement
- Various Public Works equipment, including a pothole patcher
- A revamped parking lot at the Fort Missoula Historical Museum
- New elections equipment, including impaired-voter-accessible voting machines and tabulators with increased physical security
Compared to the previous tax cycle, the owner of a $250,000 residential property, who paid about $795, would pay about $14 less. But if the property increased in value by the 12% average this year, the owner will pay about $885 this year, an $89 increase in county taxes. That is in addition to city and school taxes, depending on where the property is located.
Strohmaier noted that there were a few shortfalls in revenue this year, stemming from cuts in state and federal funding, as well as less county property to tax. While property values rose sharply county-wide, there was a significant drop in new development the county could tax compared to previous years, largely due to the city annexing a large swath of land around the airport.
The U.S. Department of the Interior pays counties money for public lands the federal government oversees, since the county can’t tax the land or open it to taxable development. The feds are paying Missoula County $1.9 million this year compared to $2.3 million last year for its 875,000 acres of public lands. The state also paid the county about $250,000 less than it spent housing state inmates in the county jail, county chief financial officer Andrew Czorny said.
The total county budget came out to just under $190 million, while expected revenues were at about $173 million. However, the shortfall is not all it appears. The gap is largely because the cost of building the new county library is on this year’s budget, while the bond money paying for it came in last year, creating the illusion of a multi-million dollar shortfall.