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The city of Missoula plans to levy 84 percent more dollars in 2015 than it did in 2005, according to historic tax data recently compiled by the City Finance Department. The average tax increase was 3.8 percent a year over the same period.

“The lion’s share of what we’re investing in continues to be police, fire, court and attorneys,” said Mayor John Engen, who offered the average tax increase. “One of the factors is voters said let’s build a new fire station, which we did, and when we do that, we automatically hire 17 employees, which is significant.“

The data was compiled at the request of Councilman Bryan Von Lossberg, who said Monday he’s still processing the information and hasn’t come to any conclusions. However, he said the figures are just one factor he plans to consider as he reviews his first proposed city budget.

“As a new council member, I’m just really interested in looking at how the property tax assessments and special districts have changed over a significant period of time,” Von Lossberg said.

Last week, Engen presented his 2015 proposed budget to Missoula City Council members, and it’s currently in their hands for consideration. The city charter charges the mayor with presenting a budget to the council, and it charges the council with reviewing and adopting a budget, amended or otherwise.

Other council members also are reviewing the historic tax increases. Councilman Adam Hertz calculated both the rise in dollars levied – from $16 million in 2005 to an estimated $29.4 million in 2015 – as well as the jump in mills – an estimated 46 percent over the same time period.

“I think we’re hearing from enough of the public to realize that this is of concern to the public, and I would hope that at the very least, we could get a coalition together to cap the special district,” Hertz said of a proposed new citywide taxing district.

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The growth in the tax base has been an estimated 25 percent from 2004 to 2013, Hertz said, drawing numbers from a recent Missoula Redevelopment Agency report on blight. And he said inflation from 2005 to 2015 has been roughly the same, some 25 percent.

“Basically, our tax base has kept up with inflation,” Hertz said. “So if you leave the tax rates the same, and we’re just accounting for inflation, just the growth in the tax base should have us covered, in my opinion.“

Councilwoman Caitlin Copple, who brought the municipal priorities “budget games” to Missoula this year, said she believes the budget should reflect a link between the money people in the community are earning and the amount of taxes the city is levying. Missoula has improved, she said, but she remains concerned because she continues to hear of people leaving town for better jobs elsewhere.

“Even though we are a progressive city, and we do believe we should invest in our quality of life and make sure this is a great place to live, I think we also have to make sure it’s an affordable place to live,” said Copple, who also would like to see a sunset or cap on the new proposed taxing district.

Several years ago, the city administration put together a comparison of 2009 property taxes and assessments in Missoula, Billings, Bozeman, Great Falls and Helena. Bozeman ranked No. 1 for highest taxes and assessments, and Missoula ranked No. 2; when adding voted general obligation bonds into the mix, Missoula came in average, in line with Billings and Helena, respectively at $1,059, $1,059 and $1,061 on a property valued at $200,000.

Since then, however, Missoula has adopted two citywide special districts, one for roads and one for parks, and this year, it’s considering one for public safety and justice. The citywide district would pay for evidence storage for police, new equipment for firefighters and, eventually, more space for Municipal Court.

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Von Lossberg and Copple both are interested in seeing an updated comparison of property taxes and assessments in other Montana cities. Von Lossberg said the information will help inform his level of support for the proposed budget – the overall proposal and its specific components.

“It’s a process for me of context, among other things, and understanding how special districts are used in our community, in other communities,” Von Lossberg said.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, income levels in Missoula County fell from 2012 to 2013, the first time the community has seen a drop since it became a “participating jurisdiction” with HUD. Engen, though, said the most recent labor statistics show more people working in Missoula County than have ever worked here before.

One significant increase in the city budget over time has been the health levy, which has gone up an estimated 10 percent a year, although Engen said he is hoping the amount will level off and the Affordable Care Act will help. He also said increases in revenue also reflect growth in the tax base – and good news for the city of Missoula.

“It means the burden is shared, and that’s something we will continue to encourage, ” Engen said.

As the council considers the 2015 proposed budget, Engen said he hopes the idea to limit the newly proposed district doesn’t move ahead. Property taxes are capped, and the district is limited in that the council can’t automatically approve it if property owners representing 10 percent or more of the value of the district protest it; a protest period in Missoula currently is underway.

“That’s the threshold, and I think that’s a very sufficient cap on our ability to do this,” Engen said of the protest provision.

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Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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