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It’s one thing to get worked up over continual increases in the city of Missoula’s budget. After all, those expenses are paid out of taxpayers’ pockets, and nobody likes paying more taxes.

But it’s another thing entirely to comb through the city budget and identify the best places to make cuts.

The city budgeting process is daunting and, let’s face it, rather boring. It requires a deep understanding of the complexities of city operations – an understanding most people don’t have sufficient time nor interest to develop. That’s why we elect municipal representatives to do the heavy lifting for us.

If anyone understands the business of Missoula’s budgets, it’s the city’s budgeting team and Mayor John Engen. Engen has been deeply involved in the municipal budgeting process for at least 15 years, and has himself submitted 11 budgets – one for every year since he was elected mayor – to city council for approval.

His most recent budget proposal, for 2017, was turned over to the City Council’s budget committee last month. It includes a general fund tax increase of 1.5 percent, which translates into a property tax increase of nearly 5 percent, about the same as last year.

For the individual property owner in Missoula, the difference means a property tax increase of not quite $35 a year for a home valued at $270,000.

With that additional money, the city would add two full-time police officers to concentrate on investigating misdemeanors during the winter months and work with the Downtown Business Improvement District during the rest of the year. It would also add two community service specialists to focus on quality of life issues.

Also, it would provide for a 2 percent pay increase for non-union city staff, totaling about $300,000; and a 1.5 percent increase for union employees, a total obligation of $1.2 million. The city’s share of pay increases to shared city-county department staff amounts to $80,000.

In his memo to council members regarding the 2017 budget, Engen highlighted a skill-based pay initiative to encourage employees to improve their skills that would cost about $65,000.

And about $182,800 would go to support the new Fort Missoula Regional Park, which county voters approved in November 2014 as part of the $42 million parks and trails bond. The additional money proposed in the city budget would help cover operating and maintenance costs, including funding for a business manager position.

All told, the proposal asks for about 13 mils to generate about $1.5 million to balance the budget, Engen’s memo explains.

The obvious flip side to this budget balancing effort is, of course, looking for places to shave costs. Which services ought to be cut? What could stand to be trimmed down?

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Here’s where Missoulians could offer their city council representatives some thoughtful suggestions, in addition to those posed by councilors already. City Council member Marilyn Marler, for example, has “tickled” a half-dozen items for further follow-up, among them the possibility of funding only one misdemeanor investigation officer and one community service specialist instead of two of each. She also proposed not funding the City Band, at a savings of $5,880.

The first public hearing on the 2017 budget appropriations will be held Monday, July 18. Missoula residents should urge the city councilors representing their ward to look for ways to reduce the size of the proposed tax increase. Better still, those willing to take the time and effort to read the proposed budget should plan on attending the hearing and make specific suggestions for budget cuts.

Meanwhile, don’t forget that every city of Missoula resident is also a resident of Missoula County, and county commissioners are in the thick of budget discussions as well. Commissioners have spent the past month meeting with every county agency and department to hash out budget requests and realities. At their administrative meeting last Wednesday, commissioners also considered individual budget requests from five community councils representing residents from the Bonner Milltown area out to Swan Valley.

Interested county residents can review recent county budgets here: missoulacounty.us/government/administration/financial-services/budgets. However, the most recent budget posted is for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

The city of Missoula preliminary 2017 budget, as well as related – and surprisingly interesting – documents are available at ci.missoula.mt.us/2044/FY2017-Preliminary-Budget.

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