In the realm of budget shortfalls, the city can’t really compete with the state—but it is trying.
A few weeks ago, Missoula City administrators discovered they were $700,000 short. But unlike the state’s seemingly habitual quarter-billion dollar shortfalls, the city’s problem is a new occurrence.
“It’s never come up in the past,” says Missoula finance director Brendtt Ramharter. “It’s just never happened in the last five to ten years.”
The shortfall came about because the city underestimated the amount of the 2002 budget that would go unspent. The city typically plans on spending only 95 percent of its budget each year, and then rolls the remaining money into the next year’s kitty. But early this September, when city officials conducted their yearly audit, they realized they had overspent—largely due to a quarter-million dollar fire arbitration settlement and heavily expanded city departments including police and public works.
Budget cuts at the state level have resulted in everything from layoffs to the elimination of foster care programs to the loss of funding for people in need of kidney dialysis treatment, so many Montanans panic when they hear the word “shortfall.” But city cuts shouldn’t carry similarly harrowing consequences. And Mayor Mike Kadas wants to make sure Missoulians don’t get the impression that they will.
“It a problem that we need to pay attention to,” says Kadas. “But it’s not a crisis by any means and that’s my concern—that it gets over-blown and played as a crisis.”
The bulk of the solution will come from the delay of several big purchases the city had planned for coming months, with the remainder made up by reviewing and increasing fees, ranging from public pool access to excavation and building permits. “We haven’t adjusted fees in some cases for 20 or 30 years,” says the mayor.
But some council members are hesitant to dive into the increased-fee solution.
“Fees to me are taxes,” says Ward 4 Councilman Jerry Ballas. “So this is like talking about tax increases.”
Ballas says that he will keep an open mind but doesn’t want the shortfall to inadvertently lead to higher fees. Ballas’ philosophy is shared by much of the council.
“If there is a good reason to institute a fee or to boost the cost of a fee then let’s do it on that basis,” says Ward 6 Councilman Clayton Floyd. “But not under the perception that we’re broke.”
The mayor has pointed out that he wants park and recreation services to remain heavily subsidized, but he remains convinced that there are other fees, like excavation permits, that can and should provide a greater source of revenue for the city.
In the meantime, it’s unclear when the budget problems will be ironed out, since many council members still want to take a closer look at the mayor’s plan.