The hamster wheel …

… keeps on turning. Some quick notes from the week: The Missoula City Council approved the Linda Vista Estates … but not everyone was on board. Ward 3 Councilwoman Stacy Rye and Ward 6 Councilwoman Marilyn Marler opposed the development as too dense for its location on the edges of town. Marler said the decision was tough but she couldn’t buy into so much multifamily housing so far away from the city center.

… The council also approved a $186,000 peer review of the Third and Russell Streets draft Environmental Impact Statement. A Portland, Ore., firm called Kittelson is doing the work.

… A meeting on a proposed sign for Sentinel High School didn’t go well for Ward 4 Councilman Jon Wilkins, who doesn’t think the schools should get to put up a sign that’s quite a lot bigger than the city allows. “I felt like I was the big bad wolf. But I also felt I had to say what I had to say.” Wilkins said the students who want the sign didn’t seem up for negotiating. The student liaison didn’t return a call for comment.

… The zoning rewrite continues, with a strong opponent of density urging the community to pay attention to possible changes. “It’s different than a dog leash law. This is huge,” said Lee Clemmensen, who disapproves of the process. Said OPG director Roger Millar (again): We are changing the regulations. It will affect your property. You should pay attention. It is important.” OPG staff have held some 80 public meetings on the new zoning rules so far. “You can hardly see us, we’re so transparent,” Millar said. Said Clemmensen of the rewrite: “For God’s sake, let’s have it completely transparent.” Read more at zoningmissoula.com.

… A “SharePoint” database the city is using to track and comment on bills in the Montana Legislature looks like it’ll be open to the public for viewing. Ross Best told city officials to junk “SharePoint” if they weren’t using it to “share” information with citizens. City communications director Ginny Merriam first said regular folks wouldn’t have access to the database, but later said the city would look for a way to open the thing up without overloading the system. Why the change? Because people asked, she said. At a meeting, Mayor John Engen told Best his tech people needed a little time to crack the case, but he couldn’t argue for a minute against openness.

That’s a wrap … for now.

— Keila Szpaller

Cars and grass

And not that kind of grass, though it makes you wonder. Congressman Rehberg sent out a news release* noting some of the things federal stimulus money will fund (and is eligible to fund). He opposed the “economic recovery” bill, which passed in the House. Per his office:

*$600 million will buy new cars for government workers. The government already has a fleet of about 642,000 trucks, cars and vehicles. (But the money is helpful for the tanking auto industry, I’m sure.)

*$200 million to repair the National Mall in Washington, D.C., including new grass. (Think they use reel mowers on that lawn?)

*$50 million for the National Endowment of the Arts, which recently put $190,000 toward art in San Francisco. (An aside: Grand Junction’s “Art on the Corner” program is the coolest thing for a downtown. Beautiful sculptures on every corner of the downtown strip, some permanent, some for sale, Colorado artists, annual community art installation days. Lovely.)

*$3 billion for Prevention and Wellness Programs, including $335 million for STD education. (Well, prevention IS supposed to be a lot cheaper than treatment, right?). Rehberg notes recent government expenditures went to a beauty pageant where participants learned “‘to flirt with greater finesse.'” He also notes the event offered HIV testing. (Hopefully the government money went to the HIV testing and not to high-heeled Pradas.)

Missoula, of course, wants some of the money and here’s* a story about that idea. Rehberg said the bill will cost each Montanan $2,700.

— Keila Szpaller

Super stimulated

A $50 million project is among the ones Missoula put on its list of infrastructure work that could rejuvenate the economy. That big one is called “Rails-to-Trails Conservancy 2010 Campaign,” and it’s for bicycle-pedestrian routes. Start date noted as spring 2009. Number of jobs created: 800. The Committee of the Whole is scheduled to talk about these projects at a 3:25 p.m. meeting Wednesday in council chambers. Hillview Way also sits on the list, with a pricetag of $3.5 million. A downtown police headquarters and county administrative building also is on the list, for $36 million. The list is here.*

— Keila Szpaller

Budget report

Technical problems so I’m pasting the narrative the mayor handed out last night. Sorry for the funky format.

— Keila Szpaller

One table didn’t paste so I’m typing the info here:

Projected shortfall for business licensing: 16,376

Projected shortfall for excavation permits: 161,740

Projected shortfall for engineering and planning permits: 29,426

Projected shortfall for fines and forfeits: 151,603

Total for general fund: 359,145

To: Missoula City Council

From: Mayor John Engen

Date: January 26, 2009

Re: Second Quarter 2009 Financial Report

Like the rest of the state and the nation, we’re watching and waiting as the financial crisis plays out. We’re continuing to be conservative, but practical, and make decisions based on facts and figures, not fear. As we review the middle of Fiscal Year 2009, we’re cautious and optimistic.

The highlights:

Building Inspection: Based on projections at this point, the Building Inspection Fund will have a positive cash balance at year end. At this point, based on data through December 31, 2008, the fund is now projected to be $321,554 short in revenues, so it is within our projections to date. If future months show revenue declines similar to December’s, further cost reductions may have to be considered. Today, inspections are tracking ahead of last January.

General Fund: Based on my staff’s work to save money and projected possible revenue shortfalls, the General Fund’s year-end balance should not decrease any further. The City’s 2009 budget continues to be structurally balanced and the city will maintain a safe General Fund reserve going into fiscal year 2010, with a goal of increasing the $1.2 million by several hundred thousand dollars this fiscal year and in each of the next three years. We build fund balance to absorb one-time costs or revenue shortfalls until the problem can be corrected.

The projected possible shortfall of $500,000 in revenue from fees and fines is currently estimated at $342,769 through November of 2008, so we are still well within the original estimate there. We have been anticipating a General Fund tax shortfall of $350,000, and at this point that number is still the projected shortage there. Property tax collections appear to be coming in at exactly the same level as last year. This is an area we will continue to monitor closely. At this point, we are hoping to have expenditure saving of $1,798,058 compared to the $1,705,000 requested. We will keep the council posted as the year progresses. A complete mid-year analysis is underway for the General Fund and we will update this report to council within the next two weeks.

Investments: The current yield differential between Treasury Bills and similar agency notes is 200 basis points (2 percent) or more. Last year, the city earned $997,792 of interest income. We know that it will be less this next year (perhaps 30 percent or less or more due to declining rates), but with Treasury Bills paying next to zero, the city would likely make only $500,000 in interest income for the year (and virtually zero the following year), if we were to liquidate all investments and move all available investable funds into T-bills. We have met with the city’s portfolio manager, Wells Capital, and their security analysts are convinced that the city’s government agency AAA rated investments (including FNMA, FHLMC, FHLB, FFCB) are still as safe as Treasuries, yet they will provide $600,000-plus more in investment income to the city. We are recommending holding our investments in these securities for the near term.

Collateral – city bank accounts: We have confirmed with US Bank that all city cash balances at US Bank will be collateralized at 102 percent with US government securities (i.e. FNMA, FHLMC, FHLB, FFCB) similar to all other city investments.

Transportation Impact Fees: Through June 30, 2008, $398,210 was collected in transportation impact fees (covered March – June of 2008…it was a new fee). An additional $215,482 has been collected from July-December of 2008, totaling $613,692 through December 30th. Inclusive of anticipated collections through year-end of FY 09, we will likely have close to $880,000 by June 30, 2009.

Proprietary funds: Sewer rates were not increased this past year but they are budgeted to increase in FY 2009, due to planned expansion of the wastewater plant. The City’s sewer fund is in good financial shape today and has been for the last three decades. Sewer user rates were proposed to be increased in FY2009 in response to the debt service needs to accommodate the proposed construction at the wastewater plant. However, this will not happen in FY09 as the proposed construction project has been delayed. Sewer rates have not been increased in eight years.

The City’s internal service fund for health insurance benefits has a fund balance in excess of $2,500,000, which is well in excess of three months of claims experience (currently have over 7 months of reserve), the targeted amount for the health plan’s fund balance.

Business Improvement District: The Business Improvement District had a year end fund balance in excess of $250,000. Current-year revenue receipts are on target, so this fund is in good financial shape.

Missoula Parking Commission. The Missoula parking Commission had a cash balance of $3,790,493 at year end. FY09 revenues are currently right on target for the present year and the fund is in excellent financial condition.

Missoula Redevelopment Agency. The Missoula Redevelopment Agency closed out Renewal District I two years ago, which was the sunset year for the downtown urban renewal district. The agency will move forward with substantially smaller budgets until the other two newer districts can be developed in a manner similar to the outstanding growth that occurred in the original district. The first phase of redevelopment of the downtown mill site along the Clark Fork River was initiated with the issuance of $3.6 million of tax increment bonds in Urban Renewal District II. This project will move into the second phase of development in FY09 or later depending on a number of factors.

Debt Financing. The debt service funds had a total year-end fund balance of $2,654,557, all of which is reserved for the payment of debt service. The City of Missoula’s total debt was increased by $36,207 during the 2008 fiscal year, as debt reductions were approximately equal to new debt incurred. State statutes limit the amount of voted general obligation debt a governmental entity may issue to 2.5 percent of its total assessed valuation. The current debt limitation for the City of Missoula is $85,308,000, which is significantly in excess of the City of Missoula’s outstanding general obligation debt. As of fiscal year end, the City of Missoula was only utilizing 21 percent of its legal, voted general obligation bond limit. In addition, the City was utilizing 60 percent of its legal debt limit for non-voted General Fund debt.

The City also recently received an improved credit rating from Standard & Poors for its financial management assessment (FMA) which resulted in an FMA of “strong,” the highest rating a city can receive from Standard & Poors. The city’s credit rating is an integral component in financing infrastructure projects and has led to an improved credit rating for the city’s voted general obligation debt from A to AA.

· Standard & Poors has this to say about the City’s “strong” FMA assessment:”A Financial Management Assessment of ‘strong’ indicates that practices are strong, well embedded, and likely sustainable. The government maintains most ‘best practices’ deemed critical to supporting credit quality and these are well embedded in the government’s daily operations and practices. Formal policies support many of these activities, adding to the likelihood that these practices will be continued into the future and transcend changes in the operating environment or personnel.”

· Standard & Poor’s has established an analytical methodology that evaluates established and ongoing management practices and policies in the seven areas most likely to affect credit quality. These areas are:

    • Revenue and expenditure assumptions
    • Budget amendments and updates
    • Long term financial planning
    • Long term capital planning
    • Investment management policies
    • Debt management policies
    • Reserve and liquidity policies
  • The City of Missoula was evaluated as having superior policies and practices in all of the areas above.

Red lights

I have a story running in tomorrow’s paper about ambulance service in Missoula. Here’s some tailings.
First, do firefighters really have to show up on emergency medical calls? Missoula Emergency Services, Inc., and the Fire Department disagree on how important it is for firefighters to be on those calls. MESI manager Don Whalen couldn’t say how often his crew requires help from firefighters, but he said their participation isn’t always necessary. In fact, he said in some rural communities, such as Hamilton and Ronan, firefighters don’t show up at all.

“We don’t need them on every call,” Whalen said.

But Assistant Fire Chief Jason Diehl said the community is better off if firefighters do show up. (And I think it might be part of the union contract, too.) Because there’s more fire stations than ambulance stations, a fire engine can get to a scene faster, Diehl said. Plus, he said the ambulances run with just two people and having more trained hands at the scene helps when responders are doing CPR or dealing with severe trauma.

“One person in the back of that ambulance really isn’t going to be effective if we’re trying to start IVs,” Diehl said.

MESI noted the industry standards for arrivals: ambulances within 9 minutes 90 percent of the time; fire within 5 minutes 90 percent of the time.

Some worry the city is trying to take over the service, although Mayor John Engen said that isn’t on the table. A fire chief in Iowa, though, encourages the city to look at the option. In Mason City, Fire Chief Bob Platts saw the local ambulance company disappear a couple years ago. He said it had been there some 50 years. Then, company officials announced they were in trouble and asked government for $300,000.

Even then, evidently, some citizens balked at the request to bail out a private company. In the end, the Fire Department took over the service and turned it into an enterprise fund. Platts said he’s biased, but he believes the community is better off. He said the focus is on patient care instead of profits, and all the responders are training together, so the service is better.

“I would recommend that any fire service look at it,” Platts said. “That’s kind of the wave across the U.S.”

In Missoula, Local 271 President Jeff Brandt said said the International Association of Fire Fighters supports taking on emergency medical services in part because the bigger the union, the stronger. He said the IAFF includes an EMS division.

“It’s certainly the (association’s) position nationally that fire-based EMS is the best way to go,” Brandt said.

At the same time, he said locally, the Fire Department supports MESI and has seen it step up its services over the years.

The real threat to MESI, some say, is falling Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. According to MESI, 79 percent of its customers rely on Medicare, Medicaid, or other fixed contracts. In 2008, the company says it collected just 46 cents on the dollar.

MESI President Dave Kuhn provided a draft letter to the Missoula City Council Public Safety and Health Committee, and it outlines all the free services the company provides, an estimated $1 million, according to MESI. (I’m having trouble posting it, so I’ll try again Monday.)

The contract between MESI and the city isn’t only about money, though. The city also formalizes some dealings already taking place. For example, Assistant Fire Chief Jason Diehl said if a firefighter uses an oxygen mask at the scene, the fire folks will grab one out of the back of the ambulance replace it. The contract sets response times, too.

Whalen didn’t like the idea of any contract — “That’s big city stuff,” he said. Brandt, though, said the Fire Department is just putting stuff in writing. (Seems like a good idea no matter the city’s size, no?)

“MESI does a great job, and as long as they continue to do that, I don’t believe there’s any kind of issue,” Brandt said.

St. Patrick Hospital trauma coordinator John Bleicher praised both MESI and the Fire Department. (He used to work for MESI.) If the city had to take over the service, Bleicher expects the cost would shift from individual users to taxpayers. He said he doesn’t believe the quality of care would drop for consumers in Missoula.
“(But) if you roll your car out at Bearmouth, then there would be (a decrease in quality),” he said. “I don’t think city fire is going to run an ambulance out to Bearmouth.”

— Keila Szpaller

Thrussell: A second opinion

The Public Works Committee on Wednesday approved 8-2 a peer review contract for the Russell and Third Streets draft Environmental Impact Statement. This from Councilwoman Stacy Rye, who with Councilman Bob Jaffe pitched the idea to hire an outside firm to scrutinize the draft EIS. Citizens, including some who had served on an EIS advisory committee, raised questions about the recommendations in the document.

The contract is for $186,000 — more than originally expected — and it’s with Kittelson and Associates, based in Portland, Ore. From their Web site*: “Our goal is to develop solutions that improve the performance of highway, pedestrian, bicycle, and transit systems.”

Can they “improve” in time for the project to get on the “shovel-ready” list? Might be nice but I’m guessing unlikely.

According to Rye, the full council takes up the matter Monday under committee reports. That could mean some discussion on the floor.

— Keila Szpaller

Earn money biking to work?

At least 100 people have signed up to attend Missoula in Motion’s “Transportation Best Practices” seminar and awards ceremony Thursday. That’s according to MIM’s Alex Stokman, who said some 45 attended last year’s event. Some of the bump is due to interest in a transportation tax credit for bikes, which Stokman said generally works like a health flex account.

That credit is the reason Gordon Schofield plans to attend the seminar. Schofield, group leader for the U.S. Forest Service Northern Region, said employees who bike to work want to know about the federal government’s plans to help with the costs of bicycle commuting. A transportation tax credit that has supported bus riding and van pooling now supports biking, too, Stokman said.

“So there’s been this buzz about bicycling being added and what does it mean and how can we access it,” she said.

Schofield said the USFS employs from 800 to 1,000 people in the valley, and many are cyclists.

“On a good day, there will be in the neighborhood of 20 bikes parked outside of our building. That’s only this office,” Schofield said of the downtown USFS building.

He’ll learn Thursday whether there’s tax help for them. Details on the seminars here*.

— Keila Szpaller