by William Skink
There is a screw the poor sentiment in Montana that is obviously deployed by Conservatives and less obviously deployed by Liberals.
At the State level it’s the political wrangling over Medicaid expansion where this is most obvious. Conservatives throw fiscal conservatism out the window when it comes to punishing poor people for needing government-funded health coverage.
They don’t care if the State gets sued and has to spend precious resources defending work requirements in court.
They don’t care if emergency services and ER triage continues serving the under-served, adding to the skyrocketing cost of health care services for all of us.
They don’t care that turning down Federal funds for Medicaid doesn’t hand back the money to some general fund for savings, but will instead go to other states with legislatures less inclined to expensively punish the poor for being poor in America.
In Missoula screwing the poor is done more subtly, but if you look at where money goes and where it doesn’t go, you can see what the priorities are–and it’s not to make the lives of poor people in Missoula any better.
One recent article about County funds administered by the Salvation Army shows the disparity between need and available funds. Because of the harsh winter the small amount of funds went faster this year than expected:
Montana’s unusually frigid winter this year forced the Salvation Army to plow through its entire $39,600 rental and deposit assistance program by March 8, prompting the group to request and receive an additional $7,000 Thursday from Missoula County.
The money was supposed to last through April, but fell short almost two months early. They turned to a $10,000 rental assistant grant through the Emergency Food and Shelter Grant, but that only lasted until March 15.
“Since running out of that funding last Friday, we have 32 households on a waiting list hoping for a little help to stay housed,” Julie Clark, a social service coordinator at the Salvation Army, wrote in a March 22 letter to Nancy Rittel, a grants administrator for Missoula County. “With an extra $7,000 we could potentially help up to 20 more households and keep them in housing.”
And how much was actually requested of this program? That info is at the bottom of the article:
Clark added that the total amount of aid requested this year was $130,600, so The Salvation Army’s assistance was only 30 percent of what was sought.
To contrast this use of County funds, it was recently reported that millions of dollars will be raised to house bugs. Yes, bugs. Yes, millions of dollars. From the Missoula Current:
The Missoula Insectarium and Missoula County Extension and Weed District will build a learning center and offices at the Missoula County Fairgrounds, bringing more diverse uses to the property and restoration of the land and buildings.
The 29,000-square-foot building will house offices for the Missoula Extension Service and Weed District and space for local 4-H and family and consumer sciences programs. Those uses will occupy about two-thirds of the building.
Sounds expensive. So how much will this cost? According to the article, just phase one will be 20 million. But, Missoula tax paying citizens, at least the bugs will have a wonderful home in which to live, right?
I know our local elected officials can get a little touchy when facing criticism, and I say that from direct experience, having inspired a verbal confrontation by a City Council member because I wrote a poem about sidewalks that the Missoulian published. During that interaction I got a peek into how maligned that council person feels regarding how local media reports on local issues, like taxes.
Well, wouldn’t you know, there is a convenient Missoulian article (just days after Jesse Ramos criticized MRA) that takes a look at local taxes, an article that conveniently doesn’t mention Urban Renewal Districts until the very end, and even then what is said is of little actual substance. First, here’s a little of the PR effort:
Missoula residents pay lower taxes, per capita, to the city than people in Bozeman, Helena and Kalispell, and slightly more than taxpayers in Billings and Great Falls, according to the city’s Finance Department.
Jessica Miller, the city’s citizen services manager, gave a presentation recently on the city’s taxes to a Citizens’ Academy, part of a series to educate people on city issues. It was organized by Missoula City Council members Heather Harp and Gwen Jones. The event was recorded by Missoula Community Access Television and reviewed by the Missoulian.
“Despite all the headlines you’ve seen in the paper and various other news media that Missoula has the highest property taxes, what a lot of those folks are commenting on is the number of mills that we assess,” Miller told the crowd. “That can be kind of misleading.”
And here, buried at the end of the article (notice a theme here?) is the part about URDs:
One person in the audience wanted to know if the city’s Urban Renewal Districts pay higher or lower property taxes than everyone else. In those districts, all the new property taxes generated since the day the districts were formed is administered by the Missoula Redevelopment Agency. That money goes back into those districts in the form of Tax Increment Financing and not into the general fund.
The city’s chief administrative officer, Dale Bickell, explained that everyone pays the same.
“Personal property pays the same in an Urban Renewal District,” he said.
The question is dumb and obviously comes from someone who doesn’t understand that it’s not that property owners within URD’s pay higher taxes, it’s that URD’s contribute to everyone’s taxes going up to feed demand for essential services that the general fund can’t keep up with because the benefit of increased tax revenue is being redirected to the MRA piggy bank.
These over-used financial mechanisms priming gentrification across the valley is a reality that our enlightened city leaders are trying to obfuscate with the numbers thrown around in this presentation. By the way, what the hell is this Citizen’s Academy anyway? An indoctrination camp?
I hate to break it to our enlightened city officials, but no amount of perception management will change the absurdity of spending $25,000 of our public money, mismanaged by MRA, on a dog statue. And no amount of perception management will change the problems of pushing big bonds for things like parks, at a cost of 39 million dollars, only to have Parks and Rec ask for more money (which they did last year) because they can’t afford to manage all the new green spaces. From the link:
The general fund budget for parks and recreation currently stands at $5.82 million, though the department is seeking a 7.5 percent increase to $6.2 million. The current budget, Gaukler said, isn’t enough to cover the department’s growing list of responsibilities around maintenance and upkeep.
“We understand this is a substantial change in numbers,” she said. “We wanted to show you, predominantly what that does, is keep the 60 percent for maintenance constant.”
Those maintenance costs continue to increase as Missoula grows. Last year, the city opened a downtown Art Park, the South Reserve Street pedestrian bridge and the Orange Street roundabout, among other additions, adding $88,000 in unfunded maintenance costs.
Gaukler said additional projects expected to come online this year will add an another $193,000 in maintenance costs. Other costs, identified as cyclical in the budget, are also mounting, including some that carry high dollar figures, such as the Northside pedestrian bridge.
The PR effort in the Missoulian shows that the majority of our elected officials still don’t get it. Considering how many economic indicators are screaming of a looming recession, if not worse, it would be nice to see a proactive reassessment of our community’s priorities toward real inclusiveness of all levels of income.
I suspect economically disadvantaged human beings would be more appreciative of assistance than bugs. Just a hunch.