City leaders begin mapping needs, priorities as FY19 budget season nears

City Council members Mirtha Bacerra, Bryan von Lossberg, Heather Harp and John DiBari, along with Mayor John Engen (standing), participate in Monday’s strategic planning session, where the city began mapping out short- and long-term priories heading into the budget process. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The city’s achievements over the past year are easy to note – the launch of Missoula Water, the opening of Fort Missoula Regional Park, and logging a record number of new building permits, among other successes.

But that was so last year, and with the Fiscal Year 2019 budget season looming, Missoula leaders look to set new priorities and make greater use of limited revenues.

“We’re trying to be thoughtful, we’re trying to make sure we’re not missing anything, and we want to make sure we’re all pulling in the same direction,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “When we do, we tend to get more done.”

Engen, members of the City Council, city staff and various department heads gathered for a strategic planning session Monday to begin setting short- and long-term goals that could – based on this year’s revenue – fund the city’s greatest needs.

The strategic planning session marks a change from past years, when council members often lamented the lack of a long-term strategy as they grappled with funding requests in the 11th hour of the budgeting process.

The city began the new approach earlier this month when it commissioned a University of Montana survey, which tapped the mood of local residents to determine what they liked about Missoula, and where the city could place more focus.

The survey found high satisfaction in fire and police services, recreational opportunities and access to biking and walking trails. It found lower satisfaction in housing, planning for growth, traffic management and street issues, including repair and maintenance.

“This is a chance for council to refer to that document, and think about their own experience with constituents, and help us cook up concrete ideas and goals around what we want to achieve over the next year and beyond,” Engen said.

“We’re also going to do some open houses for citizens so they can engage in a similar exercise and help us drill down a little deeper into what they’re interested in funding, and what they want us to do better,” Engen added.

City staff was on hand to lend insight, as were the city’s various department heads, including police, Development Services, the Missoula Redevelopment Agency, and Parks and Recreation.

Like other department heads, Donna Gaukler, director of parks and rec, placed her agency’s own needs on the table for the city to consider later this year.

“My concerns are around deferred maintenance, whether it’s the urban forest, the Clark Fork River riparian area, or picnic shelters in a neighborhood park,” Gaukler said. “We do a good job investing in our community in new facilities, but I’d like to see us take a look at what we’re building and how we maintain it as well.”

Dale Bickell, the city’s chief administrative officer, participates in Monday’s strategic planning session. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

In past budgeting years, the 12 members of the council, joined by department heads and the Office of the Mayor, tackled the budget in a few frantic weeks when tensions were high, giving little time for visionary planning.

In 2015, that led former council chairperson Marilyn Marler to suggest that “it frequently seems like we get the mayor’s budget and we just react to it.” The new strategy moves away from that approach, and it has the support of sitting council members, including current council president Bryan von Lossberg.

“It’s an opportunity for council and the administration and staff to look at the big picture, and the component parts of what makes Missoula great and how we can make it better,” he said. “It’s a real opportunity when you get all the department heads and key staff, and you get that administration side and policy side together to work on the issues.”

While results from the session will take shape over the coming weeks, some early trends began to emerge Monday morning. Participants saw need for a pavement assessment and a rate study for city utilities, along with basic street maintenance and other transportation issues.

On the plus side, the city has seen an increase in development and infill, though challenges remain, including growth, diversifying revenue streams and incentivizing the private market.

“The last two years, we didn’t feel we had a good sense of the priorities,” said council member Julie Armstrong. “We’re trying to set those now and come to consensus so there’s no argument as we move forward.”

Engen also expressed concern over cuts at the state level that have already had lasting impacts on human services.

As the state tightens its belt, local taxpayers will be forced to pony up to maintain those services, or let them expire to the detriment of local communities.

“As we see continuing cuts to human services, that comes home to roost all day long,” Engen said. “These cuts are putting people who would otherwise be productive citizens having decent lives in our community at risk, and I think it’s completely unnecessary.”