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Missoula waits for state numbers before finalizing 2019 budget

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“And now for something completely different.” That’s how Missoula Mayor John Engen opened Wednesday’s discussion on the 2019 budget.

The 2018 budget was initially nearly $160 million, but we won’t know this year’s budget for some time. The city’s fiscal budget starts July 1, but officials say there’s no use in planning until the city gets estimates on state taxes from the Department of Revenue. Those come out in August.

“Rather than speculate and cause a bunch of angst and guesswork, let's wait for the real number,” Engen said. “In the meantime, we can muddle through for a month doing the things we need to do to make sure the city runs appropriately.”

The time discrepancy has been an issue before. Last year the city predicted a nearly 4 percent tax increase. Once they had the numbers in hand city officials say taxes went down almost 1 percent.

“Why create a false narrative?” the mayor asked. “Why estimate a tax increase if there's not going to be one? And if there is one, then let's own it and it's real.”

Last year the city reduced the number of mills it levied for the first time in 17 years. But factors like state reappraisals still caused Missoulians to shell out more money in taxes.

Newly elected Councilman Jesse Ramos ran on a platform of fiscal responsibility. He says there’s still work to do on spending.

"I don't want the city to focus so much on the mill levies, because the mill levies don't matter,” Ramos said. “What matters is how much money people are actually going to be paying on property taxes.”

Ramos approves of waiting to finalize the budget until the Department of Revenue numbers.

The mayor’s budget priority list includes two new street division employees and seven other recommended positions, including three new police officers and a new city prosecutor.

And about those potholes? “I hear a lot of gripes about potholes, and streets are expensive, infrastructure is expensive,” Engen said. “But I think we have an opportunity here to listen and learn and do better.”

Next, individual departments will lay out their requests over the next two months. The budget is scheduled to be adopted Aug. 20. If you’d like to keep track of the process for yourself click here. To see Mayor Engen’s full budget letter click here.

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