Budget crunchers take sides 

With weeks remaining to decide on Mayor John Engen’s city budget proposal, City Council’s latest meeting boiled the issue down to a debate over whether to raise property taxes or cut city spending. In response to Engen’s request for a 4.82 percent property tax increase, the conservative minority wants to cut the city budget by as much as $1.5 million.

Engen says his proposed increase—the combined sum of a 2.92 percent raise in the general fund levee and a 1.9 percent hike in debt service on a voter-approved fire mill levee—will cost homeowners just $26 a year on a $225,000 home. With rising energy and utility costs, he says the plan will enable the city to continue to deliver the high level of service it currently offers.

“I can certainly understand the reasons to keep spending down,” says Engen. “The City of Missoula operates very efficiently, and we worked hard on finding adjustments in our property tax revenue collection to [maintain that].”

But City Council’s five-member conservative minority stands behind a list of budget cuts unveiled by Ward 2 Councilman John Hendrickson at a recent budget committee meeting. Since then, conservatives have tried to clarify an emerging point of contention: They want to cut spending, not services.

“People think we’re trying to gut departmental budgets,” said Ward 5 Councilwoman Renee Mitchell at Monday’s meeting. “It’s just not true.”

Conservatives say they want to “consolidate” and “re-program” the budget—improving efficiency without lowering the level of service. How they propose to do that has yet to be explained.

Conservatives did offer that council could downsize overlapping staff duties and eliminate non-essential spending in areas like Parks and Recreation, the Office of Planning and Grants and the mayor’s staff.

“I’ve got seniors telling me they’re not only getting taxed out of their homes, but they’re also getting priced out of their apartments because of rising rent,” said Ward 4 Councilwoman Lyn Hellegaard.

Following a special presentation from Engen about the tax increase at the Budget Committee of the Whole meeting Aug. 27, City Council will renew its budget deliberations when it reconvenes Monday, Sept. 8, after a Labor Day recess.
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