Putting out financial fires

Since 2009, the Missoula Fire Department has been asking the mayor and city council for more than $1 million to replace a deteriorating ladder truck built in 1990. Those requests were always deferred—until Monday night, when Fire Chief Jason Diehl went before council and argued the need was now "an emergency."

The emergency began Aug. 12, when Diehl took the truck out of commission due to unsafe wear of the truck's boom. Without that truck, Diehl explained, the department is down to a single ladder truck—and that one also needs repairs. Though no one was happy about how the purchase came about or what it indicated about the state of the city's finances, the council voted unanimously to buy the $966,225 truck.

The city will use its reserves to pay for the truck now and will find a way to repay itself in the near future, either by passing a general obligation bond or a citywide special tax district. A bond would levy a one-time tax on city residents, whereas a special tax district would create a permanent revenue stream to help meet the fire and police departments' ongoing needs. Mayor John Engen referred to the fiscal maneuvering as "borrowing from ourselves."

The mayor and some council members would prefer a special district. In fact, the city proposed the Public Safety and Justice District No. 1 earlier this year. It was scrapped, however, due to protest from property owners wary of giving the city the power to tax residents for an indeterminate period of time, at an unspecified rate.

Bruce Bender, the city's chief administrative officer, says such criticism is misguided. A special district "gives you that flexibility to make an annual decision based upon condition," he says, rather than keep issuing bonds for specific items on a schedule that doesn't account for changing circumstances. Councilman Adam Hertz, however, believes a new special tax district would only exacerbate the city's problem with "frivolously" overspending. He objects to the idea that the city needs a citywide special tax district to afford critical services.

"Well, it's just not true," he says. "We can't afford a fire truck because we have wasted money on other things."

As for the new truck, it should be in service in about a month. When it is, Diehl says, repair of the department's other ladder truck will begin.

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