Missoula Mayor John Engen is turning the city's budget process on its head this year.
Instead of providing a document for approval for Fiscal Year 2019 in July based on a “best guess” estimate for revenues, on Wednesday he outlined a new process and offered an overview of basic requests from staff for the city council to discuss during the next few weeks.
But he'll wait for “real numbers” from the Department of Revenue in early August to fine-tune the city’s spending plan for next year and present it for final approval.
“Chairman (Bryan) von Lossberg and I did considerable hand-wringing trying to figure out how we can do this better. It’s a challenge,” Engen told the city council on Wednesday. “We settled on the notion that we would wait for the final numbers before offering you the budget. We decided to bend time and make it work for our convenience.”
Von Lossberg noted that last year, the initial budget that was approved for FY2018 showed an increase in taxes. But once they got the taxable value numbers from the state Department of Revenue, taxes actually decreased.
“Looking at the revenues … during the last five or six years, what you see is that it’s kind of all over the map,” von Lossberg said, noting that revenue projections some years are greater than the actual numbers, and sometimes they’re less. “It’s obvious that it’s hard to make an educated, conservative guess what that final number will be.”
Council members said they’re encouraged by the new budget roadmap.
“I’m pleasantly surprised,” said Jesse Ramos. “I’m very impressed with this and hope as we go through the process we can focus on increases and spending as opposed to raising the mill levy or lowering the mill levy.”
The mayor will work with council members and staff using two new online documents, which are easily accessible to the public as part of the effort to get Missoula area residents involved early in the budget process.
The first Budget Process Workbook shows the list of requested increases by each city department, whether it’s for one-time or ongoing costs, and how the request would be funded. Within each department, the requests are prioritized.
The second Budget Process Workbook shows the baseline changes from Fiscal Year 2018 to 2019, and the difference not just in dollars but the percent of change. It also has an area for brief explanations for the proposed changes.
Von Lossberg reminded the council members that these numbers are only requests, and they probably will change as the city goes through the budget process.
“Eventually, when we have Revenue’s numbers we can make decisions that are in the best interest of the community on what will be funded,” he said.
That didn’t keep Engen from detailing his own wish list, based on data from a citizen survey, a public open house, staff requests and the city’s strategic plan. He said that while the community is generous and views property taxes as an investment in a great place to live, there’s a limit to what they’re willing to invest to maintain and improve the quality of life in Missoula.
Engen added that residents' main concerns are the cost and availability of housing, and the majority also want better streets, viewing transportation infrastructure “as a measure of a well-run city.”
The staff and mayor’s wish list is about $1.2 million more than last year’s $58 million budget. Some would be one-time costs, while others are ongoing.
Engen’s priorities include:
• Two new street department employees, and a seasonal part-time employee. The $197,800 cost would come from road district assessments.
• Three new police patrol officers. The bulk of the $306,900 cost would come from the tax-based general fund, and $12,570 from non-tax revenues.
• An additional prosecutor in the city attorney’s office, citing increased calls for service in the police department, demands for jury trials, and changes in the state public defender’s office. The $100,600 cost would come from the general fund.
• Improving park maintenance by expanding or creating new programs with a range of costs that would be covered under park district assessments.
• Adding an administrative assistant in municipal court to help with the increased workload. The estimated $60,800 cost would come from the general fund.
• Adding a “navigator” in the housing office to help find homes for formerly homeless citizens. The $55,000 cost would come from the general fund.
• Expanding the clean energy and sustainability initiatives, with a variety of costs.
He added that some of the priorities, which Engen said won’t require additional funding, will be addressed “in a suite of policies” that will be unveiled during the summer and eventually lead to asking voters to establish a housing trust fund.
Perhaps the greatest increase in spending requests comes from the city’s Capital Improvement Program, which Engen called the “unsung hero” of the city’s budget. He’s seeking $19.6 million in projects and upgrades, with the money coming from fees that have already been collected from utility users and don't affect property taxes.
Those include $6.7 million in street and sidewalk projects; $6.9 million in water system improvements; $2.6 million in equipment replacement; $2.2 million in park construction and upgrades; and $1.2 million in wastewater system improvements.
“As always, every year there are more new requests than funds to pay for them, but I look forward to your review and will keep your collective priorities in mind when we receive our certified revenue numbers and can deliver you a budget based on fact and data for your final consideration,” Engen told the council members.
During the next four weeks, the city council will consider the budget requests from the various departments. Missoula’s taxable values are expected to be released by the state on Aug. 6, with Engen offering his executive budget to the council on Aug. 8. A final budget adoption is set for Aug. 20.