After a lengthy and contentious hearing, members of the Missoula City Council on Wednesday gave initial approval to their fiscal 2019 budget and its 3.8 percent tax increase, setting the stage for a public hearing on Monday.
The budget, which includes roughly $53 million in general fund expenditures, was dampened by a drop in taxable values released earlier this month by the Montana Department of Revenue, forcing city leaders to forgo a number of funding requests.
“This implication that we spend money frivolously warrants discussing all the things that aren’t being funded and how much we’re having to say no to folks,” said council member Heidi West.
Funding all requests from all departments would have prompted a tax increase ranging from 11.7 to 13.7 percent. The mayor’s budget pared that down to the current 3.8 percent increase.
But Councilman Jesse Ramos sought to cull an additional $2.3 million from the proposed budget by targeting 19 programs and agencies, many prized by community activists.
His list, presented for the first time on Wednesday, sought to cut raises for non-union workers in the Parks Department and slash $200,000 from the city’s aquatics center.
“I don’t want to be doing all of this – I’m not a fan of making these cuts,” Ramos said. “But ultimately, we’ve reached a point of reckoning. There’s people being taxed out of their homes. I think it’s important we discuss them and bring them up.”
Ramos’ list also looked to cut the city’s $100,000 contribution to the Missoula Economic Partnership, saying, “I haven’t seen any evidence that’s led me to believe MEP has actually done what they said they’ve done.”
He proposed cutting $701,000 from the Permissive Medical Levy, arguing the city should move all increases in employee health insurance premiums “onto the backs” of government workers and “off the backs of the taxpayer.”
His list also looked to slash the city’s $100,000 contribution to Mountain Line and its Zero Fare program, saying “Missoula is one of 27 cities in the United States of America that has a free bus service. It hasn’t, in my opinion, shown much of a boost to the economy.”
Ramos’ efforts to make austere cuts to the budget forced a number of program heads to defend their service, including Mountain Line. Since launching Zero Fare in 2015, the agency has seen ridership increase 70 percent.
Bill Pfeiffer, Mountain Line’s communications director, said it would be foolish for the city to pull its support for public transit. Eliminating free ridership would disenfranchise those who rely on the bus to get to work, reach a medical appointment and complete other daily tasks.
“It’s a mind-blowing figure in transit, and if you know anything about transit, you know 70 percent is absolutely remarkable,” said Pfeiffer. “It would be very unfortunate and not a good idea to remove funding for this program.”
Courtney LeBlanc, chair of the Missoula Public Art Committee, also defended Arts Missoula and the Missoula Cultural Council. A recent study found that over five years, arts brought more than $54 million into the community, providing 200 jobs while bolstering tourism.
Ramos looked to cut $195,000 from the local program.
“We have a great opportunity to bring in tourism through our art and generate revenue,” said LeBlanc. “While we’re investing in Arts Missoula and the Cultural Council, we’re really investing in Missoula, our tourism and our economy.”
In his push to amend the budget, Ramos encountered several procedural hurdles during Wednesday’s hearing and struggled at times to put a motion on the floor. As one council member said, “This is not a motion. This is you proposing a cut and then offering an explanation.”
Others also took offense to Ramos’ frequent use of the term “holding a gun to taxpayers’ heads” as he attempted to argue his points. He refrained from using the term again.
“We’ve heard a lot of talk over the past couple weeks,” council member Julie Merritt said in frustration. “If you have something to propose, I’d like to get to it. You’ve had a lot of air time, Jesse, and I’d just like to get to the point.”
Members of the council, who killed Ramos’ package of budget amendments on a 10-1 vote, objected for a range of reasons. Council member Stacie Anderson said his cuts disproportionately targeted the elderly, children and low-income residents.
Councilman Jordan Hess generally disagreed with Ramos’ philosophy on the role and responsibility of local government.
“I’m not a libertarian, and these cuts are not in line with my ideology,” Hess said. “There’s nothing wrong with that ideology, it’s just not my philosophy on government. Government provides value, it provides opportunity, and I believe it lifts people up.”