Jean Curtiss Questions County Budget And County Relationship With Mayor Engen’s City Fiefdom

by William Skink

Former County Commissioner, Jean Curtiss, has some interesting things to say about the upcoming Missoula County budget. Before getting to what Curtis has to say about County/City budget dynamics, let’s review the shared mantra from County/City officials regarding budgets and taxes: we are helpless in face of rising costs to do anything but raise your taxes because the legislature won’t give us a sales tax.

Missoula County is proposing an 8 percent tax increase for the upcoming fiscal year. Here is the mantra as reported by the MC:

“The cost of providing services through local government increases faster than our ability to pay for those costs,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “It behooves us to come up with new ways to generate revenue beyond property taxes. Property tax as a tool is basically maxed out.”

The dramatic increase in the cost of housing which has resulted from constantly increasing property taxes (along with many other factors) is bringing long simmering tensions to the surface. One area where these tensions have existed for years is between Missoula County and Engen’s ever-expanding city fiefdom. Enter Jean Curtiss with comments submitted for consideration to County officials as they develop next year’s budget. Here’s how Curtiss starts:

Hello Commissioners,

Please consider the following comments for the Missoula County budget for Fiscal Year 2021.

I would ask the commission to reconsider the requested $100,000 to study the functionality and feasibility of joining the city in ownership and use of the Federal Building. I consider this a waste of public dollars.

No. 1, Mayor Engen has been strategic in pulling apart all the departments that the city and county used to share. The planning departments used to be in a joint office. He wanted more control and split them up. The grant department was a joint city county office. He wanted more control and split them up. So I find it odd that he now wants to share space.

Curtiss’ description of Engen’s moves to secure more control for himself echoes the grumblings I heard when these moves were being made. No longer in office, Curtiss has more latitude to describe the reality of how Engen’s City tentacles are encroaching on the County.

Going back to the other article, while Missoula County is starving from a slight decrease in taxable value, the City is feasting:

While the city enjoyed an $8.3 million increase in newly taxable property this year, based in part on steady investment in its urban renewal districts, the county didn’t see that increase.

In fact, Czorny said, newly taxable property county wide decreased by $300,000, from $5.9 million in 2019 to $5.6 million this year. County only mills from newly taxable property fell 70 percent, from $1.6 million to $500,000.

“The disappointing part of that is that we had a decrease in newly taxable numbers,” Czorny said. “It means we have less people to share the tax burden with, and we continue to tax the people who have already been taxed. We need more of that newly taxable property to expand our tax base.”

This reality makes what Curtiss has to say even more enraging for us County residents who disdain how Engen’s gluttonous policy wants are negatively impacting the County’s ability to serve its huge geographic responsibilities, from Lolo to Frenchtown to Seeley.

Here is more of Curtiss’ specific fiscal criticisms of this dynamic, quote at length from her appeal to County Commissioners:

I am also concerned about the proposed gift of county land adjacent to the detention center for the housing project. The county has been strategic in reserving that land for potential, unknown county needs in the future. While the use proposed sounds like it would be beneficial to the community, the details are vague about the navigation center and some important community stakeholders were left out of the planning.

This allows the city to meet some housing goals, but at the presentation on August 22, there was no mention of a city financial contribution to the project, so the investment seems one sided. I am also concerned about the mix of housing types next to each other. One section will require intensive case management of a high-risk population, the other could have families and children. I wouldn’t want to live there and worry about whether my neighbors were a risk to my kids.

This piece of land has been coveted by many, but the taxpayers bought it for public use and it should continue to be reserved. Land is the biggest driver of the cost of projects, which is why it benefits the proposed project, but also why it makes sense to keep it.

Lastly, I am concerned about several requests in the budget that transfer county tax dollars to the city’s identified needs.

No. 802: $53,950 for Homeword Landlord Liaison. This position will help folks who live in the city and focuses on services and facilities in the city so it should be on city taxes not county wide.

There is another request to fund part of the Reaching Home coordinator at $35,000. I was involved in the 10-year Plan to End Homelessness from the inception and support the work, but the county contract with the city has always referred to forming a Governance Group with county representation to oversee the work and that has never happened. This is another program that benefits mostly those in the city.

New this year is an allocation of $50,000 for winter shelter to the city. The city doesn’t have a winter shelter plan or facility. The come in out of the cold at night plan last year did not really address people without shelter in the winter. It was cold in the daytime too. The winter shelter money used to be managed by the Salvation Army and put people in temporary housing. There is not much detail about this, but it again benefits people with needs in the city and will not benefit people in Lolo or Seeley or Frenchtown who may also have winter shelter needs.

I hope Curtiss’ complaints aren’t just dismissed as sour grapes over a lost election. Engen is a savvy and duplicitous political operator who, up till now, has easily manipulated the more politically naive idealists who waft in and out of elected office in Missoula.

Taxes are going to go up, no one can stop that from happening. That means the cost of housing will go up. Elected officials will get more and more defensive, blaming the legislature or any other scapegoat they can come up with.

I hope County Commissioners realize that if they don’t stand up to Engen on behalf of County residents, he will take as much as he can from them. Curtiss’ examples might not be a significant part of the County budget, but with Engen controlling a 35 million dollar MRA slush fund that he can raid to pad the city budget (for election insulation purposes), there are some opportunities in Curtiss’ examples that Commissioners can use to distinguish themselves as actual representatives of County constituents, many of whom are being negatively impacted by a growing municipality with an insatiable appetite.

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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1 Response to Jean Curtiss Questions County Budget And County Relationship With Mayor Engen’s City Fiefdom

  1. Pingback: I Read Martin “Gomer” Kidston’s Budget Propaganda Piece So You Don’t Have To! | Zoom Chron Blog

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