Is Missoula Experiencing Drunken Sailor Syndrome?

by William Skink

Before launching into another brief tirade on city finances I will admit I am not the financially responsible one in our household. I don’t run wild and put our sustainability at risk, but I am more susceptible to impulse buys than my partner is.

One thing I don’t do is run up credit card bills I can’t afford. When I splurged on a Courtney Blazon original, the Dana Gallery was nice enough to allow me to pay in increments. If I had deeper pockets I would have no problem finding ways to spend money.

The dynamics of running a household with dependents (children, dogs, cats, chickens) compared to running a city is made all the time, and probably not fair, but I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to ask you what you would think of me if I maxed out my credit card buying art instead of making sure my kids had enough food to eat.

You would think I’m an asshole, right? I certainly wouldn’t have a willing partner anymore if I behaved that way. Nope, I’d be shown the door and searching for a divorce lawyer.

You see where this is going.

Last week City Council learned taxpayers are on the hook for $175,000 for the art park between the MAM and Adventure Cycling downtown. And because we’re not just paying off this unexpected debt the cost will be much more:

The Art Park celebrated its ribbon cutting outside the Missoula Art Museum on April 22 last year. The project was initially approved by the City Council in 2016 at a cost of $668,000, though the project’s costs increased to around $900,000, which the council also approved.

As part of those costs, Bickell said, the council increased its general fund participation and the fundraising committee increased its amount, both intended to cover the anticipated $900,000 cost.

“What happened at the end of the day, the project ended up overspending about $50,000 that didn’t have initial City Council approval, and the fundraising side fell short,” Bickell said. “Those two things compounded and created this issue.”

While most of today’s City Council members didn’t have a hand in the project, they still expressed dismay that fundraising efforts have stopped and that taxpayers will cover the bill.

“We’re stuck with a bill we never anticipated, and now we’re financing it for 20 years, and that bill will be even more as a result of the financing,” said council member John DiBari. “This doesn’t sit very well with me. I want to support the police station and the legitimate part of the Art Park, but not the chunk of money the city bore no responsibility for originally then got stuck with.”

Add this to the growing pile of examples that the city of Missoula is financially incompetent. The park bond, Max’s wave, the pedestrian bridge, Southgate mall bailout, baseball stadium bailout, litigating the stupid gun ordinance, throwing money at Arts Missoula to hire some sensitivity trainer, and now the library, which the Mayor is urging MRA to throw money at because–THE HORROR–a fourth floor community room might have to be sacrificed!!! From the link:

To date, the library has raised $4.6 million in private philanthropy, along with $705,000 in other revenues, plus $30 million from the bond that passed in 2016, according to records provided to MRA.

“We were showing we were about $1.25 million over what they could deliver,” Ellingson said. “One of the logical ways to shave off that $1.25 million was to shave off the fourth story. But as someone who has worked really hard on this library and wants it to be an iconic establishment for downtown, I was not very willing to let go of that fourth floor, and neither was the board or downtown.”

Set on keeping the top floor, the foundation approached Missoula Mayor John Engen and MRA to discuss the funding shortage. With encouragement from the mayor, the foundation proceeded to include the top floor in the final design.

“We had to make a decision at that point about whether we could move on, because you have to decide early on if it’s going to be four or three stories,” said Ellingson. “We felt in order to make a decision to go ahead with that fourth story, we needed to pursue help from the MRA.”

The foundation approached MRA last month with its request, which was originally higher than the $500,000 agreed upon Thursday. They also found support from Engen, who lobbied for the funding on the library’s behalf.

Engen said the city supports the project and voters do as well, evidenced by the passage of the $30 million bond. The top floor, which has been indicated in renderings since the project’s inception, is intended to serve as a community meeting space.

“Deleting the top floor of this facility as a function of a commitment to the community doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me,” Engen said. “I have faith in the library that we’ll get a building that matters to this community for a long time. It’s a minimus pledge today. It’s perfectly reasonable.”

I guess in Engen’s mind the voters passing a bond also means the voters signaling yes, please, use more public financing to make sure that crucial fourth floor community space stays in the plans.

I would suggest maybe soliciting some feedback from the public, but even when that happens the Mayor finds a way to spend $24,000 dollars:

Nearly 80 percent of Missoulians think they have an excellent or good quality of life, according to a city survey, although that satisfaction depends somewhat on income.

Missoulians who make more than $75,000 a year are much more likely to say they have an excellent quality of life, though only 15 percent of those who make under $15,000 think they have a poor or below average quality of life.

Those results are from a phone survey commissioned by the city of Missoula and completed by researchers at the UM Social Science Research Laboratory for $24,000.

The data can help Mayor John Engen and City Council budget with clearer, citizen-driven, priorities.

Ah, so the city spent money on a survey that discovered people who make more money are more likely to say they are satisfied with the quality of their life? Brilliant.

Boy, it sure is a good thing there is no budget crisis here in Missoula. Carry on, Sailor Engen.

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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