City Council changes budgeting process, seeks more discussion

By Martin Kidston

The Missoula City Council will change its approach to budgeting by starting the process earlier in the year and keeping closer tabs on city goals, in a move its members believe will lead to a more positive outcome.

During the last budgeting cycle, several council members expressed frustration with the hurried process, saying it did little to achieve greater outcomes and limited their ability to consider the larger picture.

“It frequently seems like we get the mayor’s budget and we just react to it,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “There’s interest in it being more of a year-round process where we can set goals and hopefully have more of a collaborative process.”

To do so, several council members recently huddled to come up with a better method. They unveiled their vision Wednesday during a meeting of the Committee of the Whole, which unanimously approved the concept.

“It’ll give us a bigger frame of reference, so when we go into budget season next year, we have a sense of history, what’s happened in the past and we know what we’re committed to,” said Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones. “It creates a much bigger picture to be able to form more constructive discussions regarding what we want to do with the decisions that come before us.”

Under the current process, the council typically receives the mayor’s budget in early June and has less than three months to adopt it. That leaves little time to make changes, look into recent budgeting history or debate further needs.

Now, the council will begin the process as early as December with a strategy session. Mayor John Engen will present a draft version of his budget, minus any financial figures. In March, April and May, the city’s department heads will present their current budgets to the appropriate committee.

“What’s been missing for me on a consistent basis is the departments coming in on a regular basis to talk about revenues and expenditures by category,” Marler said. “We need the consistent overview. The departments aren’t all the same. It’s not all general fund money.”

The process will also give the council a better understanding of the city’s short- and long-term obligations, including employee commitments. It will include an overview of past budgets and what each department has or has not accomplished.

It will also give the council more time to change or debate budgetary requests, said Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley.

“The biggest value we get out of this are with the mayor and the administration, so we can set our goals earlier and he can hear them and incorporate them into his budget, as much as possible, and give an explanation of why they didn’t make the cut or why he did something different,” Bentley said.

Several council members also asked for more financial figures when the budget is presented, including a spreadsheet of past expenses.

“If we can get some sort of visual representation on what each of the different departments’ budget have been doing over time and how they’ve been trending, that would help us with our planning, or at least our preferences,” said Ward 2 council member Harlan Wells.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com