After hearing less than an hour of taxpayer testimony, almost entirely in support of the proposed budget, the Missoula City Council passed a budget for the 2020 fiscal year Monday night on an 11-to-1 vote with minor revisions from the original proposal.
The majority of citizens who spoke at the meeting had stories of watching Missoula grow into a more livable city, and one that is investing in climate change initiatives for future generations.
Loren Pinski, who returned to living in Missoula in 2009, said the growth and changes he’s seen in Missoula have made it more vibrant place to live.
“I’m 70 years old, I’m retired, I’m a homeowner, I live on a fixed income, on Social Security and a small pension,” Pinski said. “I know that my expenses will go up, I know my property taxes will go up, and I know my buying power will only go down and I’ll be budgeting hard to stay here. But I want you to pass a fully funded budget.”
Pinski said he moved to Missoula in 1967 and lived here for 20 years before he had to move. When he moved back in 2009, he said it was a changed city, one that has become so enviable, it’s become a tourist destination.
“With all the things this town has to offer, to simply take the lazy way out, and cut benefits, saying you’re going to cut taxes, is going to destroy what this town has spent so many years putting together,” he said. “From one senior citizen on a fixed income, living in this town that I love, I ask that you would vote yes for the future of Missoula.”
And the council did.
After weeks of committee meetings, where council members sussed out the details of Mayor John Engen’s proposed budget, council members had no changes to offer at the Monday night meeting. In contrast, last year’s heated final budget hearing, featuring hours of public comments, lasted until 2:30 a.m.
At last year’s final budget hearing, hours of public testimony decried the rising taxes those on fixed incomes struggled to afford. This year, 18 city residents spoke, with 15 speaking in favor of the budget, a stark contrast from the previous year.
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Another obvious difference this year was council member Jesse Ramos’ lack of proposed amendments to the budget. Last year, although none passed, Ramos proposed 20 amendments to the budget, equaling about $2 million in cuts. This year, in previous committee meetings, he remarked he would not be proposing any amendments, as they had no chance of passing.
Ramos was the only council member to vote against the budget.
The proposed budget will add 20 new employees to the city’s staff and $22.7 million in capital improvements during the 2020 fiscal year.
Between the general fund, road district and park district, the city plans to spend $67.5 million for general operations, an increase of about 2.74% over last year’s $65.7 million budget.
Among the additions to the budget are six new police officers, five additions to the street maintenance team, and another city engineer to expedite new development.
A significant property value upshot in Missoula made it possible to grow the budget while also decreasing the tax rate by about 5%. But while the tax rate will fall somewhat, the increased property values will still result in a higher tax bill for the vast majority of homeowners.
If property values were constant, the owner of a $250,000 house who paid $982 in city taxes last year would pay about $954 this year with the proposed budget. However, the average residential property value increased by almost 10 percent. Accounting for this average increase in value and the decreased tax rate, that homeowner would pay $1,050 this tax cycle.
The budget also included the city’s decision to pull $2.8 million from the Missoula Redevelopment Agency’s urban renewal fund to help build the city’s rainy day fund while revenues are strong. The city won’t see the whole $2.8 million though, as it must be split with the county and schools. The city’s cut will be about $725,000.