Alarmed Missoula department heads and program managers rushed into the City Council chambers Wednesday morning to fend off more than $2.3 million in budget cuts proposed by council member Jesse Ramos.
They didn’t need to worry, however, as all of the council members except Ramos voted down his proposals. The majority of the council said the issues Ramos raised may make for good policy discussions in the coming year, but if enacted now, they would disproportionately harm the people Ramos was trying to help: low- and fixed-income Missoula residents.
“I appreciate Mr. Ramos’ sentiment in order to reduce a tax increase that would affect everybody,” council member John Dibari said after almost two hours of discussion. But, he said, the list of cuts Ramos proposed "disproportionately affects a certain segment of the population.''
“As I have mentioned in the past, I could go through the budget and identify a host of items in the budget that I personally could do without. But what I’ve learned from my service here is that it’s not about me,'' Dibari said. "There is a constituency for all of this in our community and you have heard from a lot of them today and you will in the future.”
Ramos’ proposed cuts came on the heels of a new budget process this year that was turned on its head after the value of the mills the city planned to levy to taxpayers actually went down instead of increasing as anticipated. That meant the city proposed to raise taxes by 3.85 percent, which equates to about $40 on a median-priced home in Missoula of $268,250.
A public hearing on the proposed budget is set for 7 p.m. Monday in the council chambers on Pine Street.
Ramos said he knew his list of 19 line items to cut from the budget was last-minute, but added that he only received the final version of the proposed city spending document — with the dollar figures attached — late on Tuesday afternoon.
Mayor John Engen presented his final proposed budget to the City Council last Wednesday, which includes what is being called a one-time dip into Tax Increment Financing funds from the city's Urban Renewal Districts totaling $750,000.
“If you look at the long-term property tax over the course of the last 10 years, (a 3 percent increase) is in the ball park,” Engen said. “That doesn’t mean this is terrific and if I had my druthers (it would be lower than that.) But the circumstances don’t match and we need to respond to circumstances that are not aligned.”
The meeting turned tense early, with council members bracing for debate over the proposed cuts. At one point, budget committee chair Gwen Jones and other council members raised their voices to try to stop retiree Gary Anderson from testifying longer than three minutes. He refused to stop talking, however, noting that even though his home of 35 years was paid for, it cost him $8,000 a year in taxes to live there.
“You are on the verge of taxing the middle class of Missoula out of their homes,” he said angrily. “I have enough to last my life as long as you don’t keep raising my property taxes. You need to stick with your budget.”
Later, Ginny Merriam, communications director for the city, noted that only 29 percent of a property tax bill is attributable to Missoula government, and the biggest taxing jurisdiction in Missoula County is the public schools.
Shortly after the outburst, council member Julie Merritt said she wanted to hear from Ramos about his proposed cuts.
“I think we have heard a lot of talk over the last couple of weeks, and if you have something to propose I would like to get to it,” Merritt said. “You have had a lot of air time, Jesse, and I would like you to get to the point.”
Ramos’ proposed cuts included:
• $701,398 the city will pay in increased health insurance premiums for city employees. Instead, he proposed those employees pick up what he estimated was about $75 per person in additional costs.
• $320,000 from Missoula in Motion, which promotes walking, biking and other alternative transportation options for commuters.
• $203,000 from the city’s aquatics programs, which he said should raise fees to cover their costs.
• $195,000 from Arts Missoula; Ramos recommended the private sector contribute this money instead.
• $147,000 earmarked for raises for non-union employees in the city parks district.
• $100,000 given to Mountain Line for its free bus service.
• $100,000 for economic partnerships with the private sector, which Ramos said should come from city businesses.
• $81,000 for raises for road district employees.
Other smaller cuts were proposed for the city’s cemetery master plan; the city’s portion of the updates to the downtown master plan; a lobbyist at the state Legislature; withdrawal from the League of Cities and Towns; and operations at Jeffery Park, among others.
“I’m not a fan of making these cuts, but ultimately I think we have reached the point,” Ramos said. “People are being taxed out of their homes. I don’t think this will be passed, but it should be put out there.”
The council took a brief break to digest the proposed list of cuts, and as the word of their breadth spread, those affected gathered in the gallery to wait for their chance to offer reasons to retain their funding.
They talked about how the partnerships between the city and private parties added to Missoula’s economy in countless ways. They told how the parks provide free entertainment for children in low-income families, and aquatic parks are sometimes used as inexpensive day care for youth. They discussed the intrinsic value of art for residents, as well as the tangible benefits from visitors. And they expressed how demoralizing it would be to the non-union employees who wouldn’t get raises while those in bargaining units would receive them.
But in the end, council member Jordan Hess said the proposed cuts just weren’t in line with his ideology, a statement supported by the other council members.
“I believe governments provide value, opportunity and lift people up, and I believe that’s embodied in each of these programs,” Hess said. “People talk about the success stories in each of these… It’s a difference in philosophy and I believe it serves our constituents.”
Heidi West added that she think’s its unrealistic to expect the private sector to fund or pick up the slack from the proposed cuts.
“I think the local government has the opportunity on some level to equalize the playing field and serve all of our constituents,” West said. “I think all of these programs are valuable.”