Missoula Mayor John Engen is proposing adding 18 new employees to the city’s staff and $22.7 million in capital improvements during the 2020 fiscal year.
As planned, some of the money would go to clearing snow in neighborhoods, an ongoing concern in the city. The city would hire more police officers and a new deputy attorney, among others.
In a presentation to the Missoula City Council on Wednesday, Engen noted that his preliminary budget is based on known numbers and informed by the city’s strategic goals, resident surveys, ongoing financial and operational obligations and past budget performance.
“The good news is that FY19 was a successful year in terms of revenues and expenses,” Engen wrote in a letter he read aloud to the council. “We are performing well within our approved budget authority, adding to our fund balance and will begin the fiscal year in a strong position.”
The news comes a year after financial turbulence that saw the city take a one-time $750,000 dip into Tax Increment Financing funds from the city’s Urban Renewal District and heart-felt, middle-of-the-night pleas by residents to not further raise taxes during a marathon budget public hearing that stretched into the early morning hours.
Engen said as they’ve prepared this year's budget, staff is recognizing the community’s sensitivity toward property taxes and are “striking a balance between increasing demands for service, the increasing cost of those services and our collective ability to pay for those services.”
“As it stands, I’m optimistic with regard to this budget,” Engen said. “Our estimates suggest that we can move the city forward in a thoughtful, balanced, progressive way.”
The proposed new staff includes:
• Six new full-time police officers. Engen noted that the council committed to three new officers during last year’s budget deliberations, and he’s recommending three more based in part on increasing calls for service and the annexation of about 3,200 acres around the Missoula International Airport.
• One assistant mechanic to the fire department to maintain equipment and extend the life of their apparatus. Engen also suggests increasing overtime as part of a pilot program to handle lower priority calls for service during the busiest times. He calls for investment in a program with Missoula College to train more firefighters as paramedics so they have life-saving training when they’re first on the scene of emergencies.
• A deputy court manager for the municipal court and a new deputy attorney.
• Five new maintenance employees in the streets and traffic services departments, plus a fleet technician to maintain equipment. He also wants to add a small fleet of light-duty plowing vehicles to address berms and other "inconveniences snow creates," with a plan to dramatically improve the response to snow in residential areas.
• A program specialist for the city’s energy conservation office.
• A business manager in Public Works.
• An engineer in Development Services to help process proposed projects faster.
Last year's budget initially included the prosecutor in the city attorney's office and a new municipal court administrative assistant, but those positions were cut from the final budget. The police chief's request for three new officers was pared to two, and the public works request for the equivalent of 4.25 full-time employees, including two to increase snowplowing services, was cut to 0.25.
The capital improvements include $7.6 million in street and sidewalk projects; $2.4 million in parks construction and upgrades; $5.9 million in water system improvements; $4.5 million in wastewater system improvements; and $2.1 million in equipment replacement.
Engen didn't outline specific capital improvements, but noted that the water and wastewater projects are funded through those utilities, while parks and street improvements are paid through special districts. Equipment replacement uses money from the general fund, utilities, and enterprise funds.
“The enhancements to our programs I’m recommending in this budget are consistent with priorities of residents as expressed in our surveys, correspondence, public testimony and what we hear daily from those we serve,” Engen said. “In addition, we’re responding to budget requests from staff who do the work of the city and know what resources are necessary to serve Missoulians and the interest of council members as expressed through conversations and strategic planning processes.”
The mayor also wants the city to fund a portion of the community-wide winter shelter effort for homeless residents, but didn't attach a dollar figure to the work.
Engen also didn’t release a dollar figure for his overall budget. This is the first step in the process, with department budgets and requests being presented to the city council on Wednesdays throughout July and into August. The target date for adopting the budget after a public hearing is Aug. 19.
At this point, it’s unclear how much, if at all, taxes will increase to provide city services. The Department of Revenue recently sent out new appraisals for properties in Missoula, with many residents shocked at the increases that ranged from an average of 12% for residential and 18% for commercial.
However, that doesn’t necessarily translate into a tax increase. With more properties on the tax rolls due to new developments, the tax burden is shared among more properties.
Last year’s city budget woes were set off by the Department of Revenue setting the value of a mill in an amount that was lower than the city anticipated. Leigh Griffing, the city’s finance director, said they don’t expect that to occur again this year, but expect to hear from the state by Aug. 5.
“That will give us a number to calculate the mills and the budget,” Griffing said, noting all of the budget information will be posted on the city’s website.