Missoula City Council pans effort to pull more tax increment for third patrol officer

Missoula City Council members John DiBari and Gwen Jones listen to testimony during Wednesday’s budget hearing. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

A proposal to withdraw an additional $87,000 in tax increment to add a third police officer to the city’s patrol ranks this budget cycle was defeated Wednesday by members of the City Council on a 10-1 vote.

The request was presented by council member Jesse Ramos and would have triggered a larger remittance of $314,000 due to rules in state law, leaving the city’s urban renewal districts low on funding.

“I know we’ll have to skimp on some of the pet projects that the Missoula Redevelopment Agency does,” Ramos said. “But ultimately, a police officer is more of a need as opposed to pet projects, which are a want.”

Ramos’ request would have come in addition to the $2.7 million the city already plans to remove from its urban renewal districts to cover this year’s challenging budget.

That remittance was approved on Tuesday by MRA and will limit the agency’s ability to make public improvements and partner with developers looking to invest in blighted areas of the city. Taking an additional $314,000 to hire a police officer would have further depleted the districts, opponents said.

“We’ve got very little left to work with for the rest of this fiscal year in terms of projects that may walk through the door,” MRA Director Ellen Buchanan told the council. “It’s how much opportunity you want lost.”

The mayor’s budget already looks to add two new police officers in Fiscal Year 2019. The third position was cut after this year’s taxable values from the Montana Department of Revenue came in soft.

The city plans to conduct a police study this year in partnership with a national organization to determine appropriate staffing levels. Several council members opted to wait for the outcome of that study before funding a third patrol position using tax increment.

“Just approaching community issues through policing is one facet,” said council member Heidi West. “There need to be many different tools for a better outcome overall.”

Council member Jordan Hess said several MRA projects, like opening Broadway Island for public use and completing a short segment of trail that’s been dubbed “needle alley” will help with public safety.

Taking more money from the city’s urban renewal districts would put those projects at risk at a time when transients and crime on the Westside have emerged as a neighborhood concern.

“Taking that funding jeopardizes those projects on the Westside by removing further funds from (urban renewal) districts,” Hess said. “An all-of-the-above strategy will immediately serve constituents who need our help, and staffing the study will get us to the appropriate policing levels in due time.”

Taking money from the city’s urban renewal districts to patch this year’s budget is already unpopular among many members of the City Council. Heather Harp, who represents Ward 3, likened it to making a withdrawal from one’s retirement account, which comes with penalties and taxes.

The city nets just 30 cents on the dollar when remitting funds from its urban renewal districts and surrenders the remaining 70 percent to other taxing jurisdictions. In contrast, most of the projects approved by MRA yield 10 times the value of the initial public investment.

“To only end up netting 30 percent seems like an absolutely foolhardy fiduciary decision,” said Harp. “We should not do this ever again.”

Mayor John Engen requested the one-time remittance to cover a $750,000 gap in the FY 2019 budget, though taking money from the districts wasn’t his preferred option.

“Tax increment remittance is expensive money, and the opportunity costs there are considerable,” he said. “This isn’t something we ought to do lightly or regularly. We’re limiting our ability to further invest in the infrastructure that’s helping this city grow and maintain a quality of life.”

Engen’s budget seeks a 3.8 percent tax increase. Without the remittance from MRA, that increase would have been 2.2 percent greater.

The city budget comprises roughly 28 percent of a Missoula resident’s tax bill. Missoula County and Missoula County Public Schools represent an equal or greater portion of a resident’s tax bill.

Missoula County will hold its budget hearing on Thursday at 3 p.m. and is proposing a 4.91 percent tax increase.

“Those other jurisdictions, if they’re increasing taxes, which I imagine they are, ought to be able to do less of that by virtue of this remittance,” Engen said. “All those jurisdictions are in the same boat. They all have increasing expenses and additional demands for service.”