Right away, I can tell something fishy is going on, that radical changes have been made. For instance, back in 2016, the city budget was 380-pages. In 2020, it was 355-pages.
But the city’s current budget is 300 pages shorter.
Why is that?
And why is the Department of Revenue in Helena giving us the City of Missoula’s budget, and not the city itself?
I emailed the Finance Director for the city’s Financial Services Department, asking where I can find the full 2021 budget, not this Helena-written summary. I’ll let you know if I hear anything.
I received this email back from the city:
What you are referring to as the “full budget” is not a required format and is done in accordance with the GFOA requirements for the budget award they issue. Last year we had serious capacity issues and I requested that we not go through the extensive process to create a document that isn’t used by managers internally for their department management, nor is it required by other outside bodies. I do understand that it can be a valuable document for the public as it contains additional narrative and context but I didn’t see how we could actually accomplish it due to capacity and Covid constraints.
The version we published wasn’t written in Helena but conforms with the State format and requirements and is what we submitted to the Department of Administration. I can see how that might not have been clear. There is a second link on that page titled “FY2021 Adopted Budget Workbook with resolutions” that you may wish to review. This has some additional information that you might seek. Both of these documents are the FY21 budget that was passed by City Council – the differences between the two being formatting and some additional charts.
I really wish I could tell you more today, like I have in the past about the city’s finances.
It’s just that I can’t read this 2021 budget that they’re giving us. There are some summary sections that make sense, but the way they list things after that makes no sense to me.
I kind of feel this is by design...with the idea that people like me get frustrated, throw up their hands, and give up.
In year’s past, Missoula has done a good job with graphic design. They wanted to make the budgets look good and for them to be readable.
No effort was given over to that this year.
Maybe it was the pandemic...maybe it was a city government that wants to hide the truth. I think it’s a little of both.
Here’s how they presented the title page info last year:
And here’s how they present it this year:
Big difference, huh? You can tell at a glance that last year they cared; this year, they do not.
My first thought is, ‘Did they upload the wrong document?’ Because last year’s budget and this one are two entirely different things.
Guess how many elected officials, candidates for office, and media personalities have noticed this?
On page 2 we get a summary of finances, something that usually is in a nice graphic box so it’s noticeable. This year, it’s like they want to make it as inconspicuous as possible.
Once again, here is how the city presented their information last year:
Those graphs tell us the city was $14 million in the hole last year, meaning elected officials knowingly signed a budget they knew had a whopping deficit, knew we were living beyond our means.)
And here’s what the budget summary info looks like this year:
It’s like they just stopped caring.
So what does this 2021 budget summary tell us?
The city budgeted $171 million for things they want to spend money on, but they only bring in $121 million in non-tax revenues, meaning they need an additional $41 million in property taxes to offset the spending...and it’s still not enough.
So they bring in inter-fund transfers, which we often call PILT funds, or payment-in-lieu-of-taxes. Each year, Montana cities clamor for this money, and we see why - they’d be broke without it, for they spend more than they take in.
So the city has an extra $28 million it brings in in Interfund-transfers, putting them in the black for the year with the budget.
I wish I could tell you more, but that’s all the summary they give me.
That budget is what we’re currently operating under, and it comes to an end on June 30, the city’s fiscal year-end.
Before we get into anymore numbers, it’s important to realize what often eats up the budget for most entities - staff.
You pay them wages, salary, benefits, healthcare, and then taxes on top of it. It costs a lot. But it in turn gives a lot, in the form of community spending. It’s a slippery slope, and we’re not going to get into it here.
Currently, the city has 686 full-time employees on staff, up from the 574 they had in 2018. Despite mass layoffs, lockdowns, and whatever other misery affected us with last year’s pandemic, the city seemed oblivious to all of it, actually adding 20 more people to its staff.
The city’s general fund brings in $36.7 million, but spends $67.8 million.
The city has 27 different special revenue funds. These are special funds that are legally created to fund specific needs, like roads, snow removal, libraries and the like. It takes people to do those tasks, and these funds employ 158 full-time employees.
Those employees take up $12 million of the total $35 million in operating costs for those funds to function.
Something that troubles me greatly are the mill levies that Missoula has access to, which mainly comes about via how much taxable value the city has access to via land and property within their limits.
Back in 2011-12, the city’s entity-wide taxable value was $113 million but this year it’s sitting at $157 million.
Many of the homes in Missoula haven’t changed much in that decade, but they’ve become a lot more valuable, meaning their owners have to pay a lot more taxes. Must be hard on fixed-income seniors.
The city has also annexed a great deal of land over the past few years all while acquiring several private businssses. This adds to that taxable value.
Ten year ago, the taxable value for the city had only increased by 1.3% from the previous year. The next year it fell a quarter of a percent; then it rose 1.2%; fell by 1.2% the next year; and then every year since 2015 the city’s taxable value has gone up.
First it was 2.8% and then 1.6% and then 9.9% and then 0.4% and then in 2019-20 it went up a whopping 18.6%, then 2% this current fiscal year.
That’s an increase of 35.3% just in the past 5 years. This comes down to the legislature, and how they changed the rules. Many realize now that they made a mistake, and need to go back to the old 10-year reassessment on valuations, not our current 2-year-model.
My god, imagine paying 35% more in property taxes in just five years! Of course, very few of the rich transplants moving here care; for them, it’s a deal.
Something else that greatly troubles me in regard to the mill levies are how many are available to the tax-hungry Missoula officials.
For instance, before 2017 there weren’t any of what they call “carry forward mills,” which are mills that can be levied in a subsequent year.
That year there was an extra 0.5 of mill levies available to generate revenue for the city. That jumped to 19 the next year before falling to 4.5 and then the current 15.
So in effect, Missoula officials could put as many as 15 new mill levies on the ballot next year, if they wanted to. I’m sure there’ll be at least one, likely for costs associated with the new homeless camps when the covid money runs out, or at the very least, some kind of sculpture for a park somewhere.
I’m going to stop here today, with the hope that I can find the actual city budget sometime soon, not this Helena-bubble knockoff.