Missoula Mayor Walks Away From Jail Diversion Because Money Talks

by William Skink

Last night I fell asleep much earlier than usual, exhausted from neighbors with an apparent four figure budget for fireworks, the heat that’s taken hold, and the different demands of three kids in various stages of development and emotional maturity.

And then, earthquake. Not much sleep was going to happen after that disorienting wake up.

I almost started writing a post at 1am when it was clear I wasn’t going back to sleep any time soon, but after a week of no updates I didn’t know where to start.

I’ve been wanting to blast Missoula’s budgetary priorities, so that seems as good a place as any to start.

Missoula Current reported at the end of June that after spending tens of thousands of dollars on studying the jail overcrowding crisis at Missoula County’s detention facility, the funding for the programs the study recommended is on the chopping block:

The proposed budget, set for adoption next month, includes three new positions for Development Services to help it keep pace with the city’s robust growth.

However, the budget does not include the $82,000 requested by Parks and Recreation to cover the maintenance of several new greenways, including the Missoula Art Park and the pedestrian crossing at South Reserve Street.

Nor does it include $650,000 to fund the city’s Jail Diversion Master Plan. Among other things, the initiative seeks funding for a number of programs, including $38,000 for alcohol and drug monitoring, $62,000 for anger management and $17,000 for home arrest.

One reason I held off writing about this is because I was simply too enraged to write constructively about it. After sitting on my rage for a week, I truly think these three paragraphs exemplify how completely ridiculous Missoula’s political leadership under Engen has become.

The budget being proposed wants to bolster Development Services despite the whiny lament that Missoula’s building boom isn’t actually filtering into the general fund. Why? Here’s Dale Bickell trying to explain it:

Despite robust growth and record-setting figures in new building permits, which reached $245 million last year, the benefits of new growth have yet to be realized.

That has prompted city leaders to take what they say is a conservative approach to budgeting for basic services, leaving little room for enchantments.

“Our total taxable value growth has been pretty stagnant over the past five years,” said Bickell. “We’re not projecting a large number of newly taxable property, but we’re hopeful that with all the development we’re seeing that we’ll actually get more revenue than we’re projecting. We’re trying to be conservative.”

Understanding why new tax values continue to lag despite Missoula’s robust growth is difficult to dissect. Among the speculations, Bickell said, new properties don’t generally enter the tax base until 24 months after a permit is issued, meaning all the new projects coming online won’t be counted for months.

It might be helpful to explain the function of urban renewal districts and other tax-break schemes intended to prime the pump for development, but the article doesn’t include that angle in the “difficult to dissect” problem of booming development not stemming the still voracious appetite of city government for more fees and tax squeezes.

The second paragraph touches on the unsustainable, short-term stupidity of developing green spaces without budgeting for maintaining these spaces. This isn’t the first time Missoula has developed green spaces without accounting for long-term maintenance. This same issue came up after the 38 million dollar bond passed to develop the park at Fort Missoula.

The issue that angers me the most–the third paragraph–is not funding the programs recommended by the jail diversion master plan. The Mayor has no problem spending tens of thousands of dollars to study problems like jail overcrowding, but when it comes to funding proposed solutions, it looks like he’s walking away.

If that is the Mayor’s position, I hope everyone involved in the broken criminal justice system takes note and votes accordingly. I know I am feeling very motivated to do what I can to sunset the Mayor’s reign over Missoula.

I’ll leave it at that, for now. There are a dozen other posts I want to write, but I won’t have a new website to showcase my art if I don’t put in the work now, before the caldera blows and wipes us out.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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3 Responses to Missoula Mayor Walks Away From Jail Diversion Because Money Talks

  1. JC says:

    But, but, but: “MIssoula, City of Water…”

    I think that the TIF funding is at the root of Missoula’s budget problems. Bickell’s not talking about it is indicative of how big a problem it is for Engen. I’ve already had some convos with some of Missoula’s politicos and they’re worried that it will become a major campaign problem for him.

    You can only divert so much of new taxable base revenue into the TIF system before the rest of the budget isn’t capable of handling the load of commitments now going unfulfilled. So we can help private businesses make large profits, but can’t use the tax revenue (for 10 years I believe) from new development in redevelopment districts to do anything but help businesses make more large profits.

    The whole TIF program needs to be put on hold and audited and examined from top to bottom.

  2. djinn&tonic says:

    Montana Beef Council Ruling Sets Precedent

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