Council denies new projects, but proposed tax increase creeps to 4.06 percent

In an effort to hold the line on tax increases, the Missoula City Council on Wednesday quashed a $39,000 request to maintain landscaping in the city’s greenways, and $50,000 to fund elements of the jail diversion plan, saying this year’s budget was too tight.

But members of the Budget Committee of the Whole did fund several other social programs, including suicide prevention and crisis intervention training for Missoula police officers.

In doing so, they effectively boosted Mayor John Engen’s proposed 3.8 percent budget increase to 4.06 percent and held open the possibility of revisiting several items if the budgetary picture changed.

Of the 120 total requests for new funding from all city departments, less than 30 have been granted.

“I don’t want to put anything more in the mayor’s budget than what’s there already,” said Ward 4 council member Jon Wilkins. “Couples in my neighborhood on fixed incomes, even at $20 more a month, they have to do without something else. It’s a big problem.”

Wilkins later changed his mind and supported a $49,000 funding request for suicide prevention.

The debate was one of several that unfolded as members of the City Council returned to items that sought funding but weren’t included in Engen’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget.

Several items resulted in contentious debate, prompting Wilkins to leave the meeting at one point after Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley accused him of a conflict of interest regarding his relationship with Missoula Correctional Services.

That agency had sought a funding increase of $25,000, though Bentley successfully reduced that increase to $16,384. She gave $4,950 to train Missoula police officers in crisis intervention.

“When police officers are dealing with people in a mental health crisis and have to make snap decisions, they do this training and learn about deescalation,” Bentley said. “It’s a small amount to pay for training our officers.”

Bentley said the move didn’t completely defund Missoula Correctional Services.

“It sill leaves with them with some money and they’ll have to make decisions, just like we have to make decisions during budgeting,” she said.

Wilkins also accused Bentley of a conflict of interest regarding her personality crisis with Missoula Municipal Court Judge Kathleen Jenks. Before walking from the meeting, to which he would later return, he said Missoula Correctional Services probably wouldn’t survive if its funding request wasn’t met.

The council picked up several other funding requests, including $10,000 for street maintenance, which it approved, and $14,000 for a Zero Waste Baseline Study, which it also approved.

The council did not provide $51,000 to fund a climate position. But those who opposed it called it important and pledged to seek funding for the position at a later time.

“The energy and climate change work is dear to my heart,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg. “We have an obligation to get to this work, the question is when. The idea that the council and administration just spends any and all money to do anything is just not true, and this is an example of that.”

The council also approved $49,000 for suicide prevention. But Ward 4 council member John DiBari opposed it in an effort to hold down tax increases. He voted against all funding requests presented on Wednesday.

“There are lots of trade offs,” he said. “If I vote to increase the budget, I would have to vote to decrease it somewhere else. I also want to be mindful that we’re asking people in the community to spend more money. I want to keep that efficient as possible.”

While Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler agreed with DiBari’s stance, she said suicide prevention was too important to go unfunded.

“I know three people in my life that have all committed suicide,” she said. “I know we have an epidemic of veteran suicide. When I think about it, I can’t not support this.”