Gobs of money

So on July 12, hordes of people will bombard Council Chambers to talk about these new parks and streets districts, right? If it happens, well, I’ll be vummed.

I just learned the word “vummed” trying to figure out the origins of the word “vuvuzela,” and I had to use it. I couldn’t find “vuvuzela” in three dictionaries at home, but The Week says South Africans used to blow those things to scare baboons away, and factories in China are pumping out the plastic horns like crazy.

Bets are the budget hearings won’t be nearly as riotous or animated as the soccer matches. In the past three years or so, I remember a couple people showing up and saying they thought the budget was fine.

Mostly, the debate comes from Missoula City Council folks. This year, one comment came early, although Kandi Matthew-Jenkins may be at the head of a short line. KMJ, a Constitutionalist, said she’s against any increase in taxes for any reason whatsoever.

“We have not see the end of this so-called great recession,” Matthew-Jenkins said.

She said she’s seen waste and extravagance, and she called on the city to hire an auditor, but not just any auditor, and definitely not one from Montana. KMJ recommended a gentleman from CAFR1.com.

She said he’s found gobs of money other supposedly broke governments have hidden away. Sneaky devils.

Apparently if there’s money to spare, John Hendrickson wants to spend some of it on refilling the disposable cups above the drinking fountains outside Council Chambers. Well, he didn’t talk about the money, but he did say the weather was heating up and it’d be good to restock those cups.

Well, I vum.

— Keila Szpaller

Who is cutting spending?

This letter from Will Deschamps makes it sound like cuts aren’t part of the proposed budget for 2011. Yep, there’s a tax increase, but the mayor’s budget represents less spending, too.

And so far it isn’t anyone on Missoula City Council who has made those trims. Not the conservatives credited for having a “novel idea” to pull back on spending or “these hard-left lefties.”

The budget on the table was put together by Mayor John Engen and his people in City Hall. Chief administrative officer Bruce Bender passed along some examples of the decreases: A half-time job in the City Clerk’s Office is gone, a full-time job in Vehicle Maintenance is now a half-time job, travel and training is reined in by more than half, and a couple cop jobs won’t be filled after police retired.

You can argue there’s gotta be more cuts — or different ones — and some folks in the minority are definitely calling for more. But as city budgets go, cutting isn’t “a novel idea.”

— Keila Szpaller

Blue blazers and tubby trousers

What do bicycles and blue velvet blazers have in common? Both can be green and economical.

In local government, transportation comes up often when folks talk about sustainability, but I’ve heard people tout the notion that buying clothes sold at second hand stores is another way to reuse.

A note of an upcoming sale at Secret Seconds reminded me of a blue velvet blazer I found there a couple months ago. It cost $7 after a discount. A steal.

YWCA Missoula earns one third of our budget from our three Secret Seconds stores, which are hosting a 50 percent off sale starting tomorrow and running through Saturday!

I was after the low prices at the shop and am kind of skeptical that buying a couple used pieces of clothes really helps the earth. Reminds me of “Last Train Home,” a documentary about, well, China, quality of life, family, the global economy.

It played this year at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival and illustrated among other things the ripple effect of consumption. In one silly moment, a man working in a clothing factory holds up a gigantic pair of blue jeans against his slim body and pokes fun at us for being so fat.

Maybe one pair of fat pants bought at a second-hand shop is one less pair of tubby trousers he’ll have to make fun of.

— Keila Szpaller

Best. Spreadsheet. Ever.

How about a little hyperbole to counteract using the word “spreadsheet” in a headline? There’s actually tons of great spreadsheets, and this is one of them.*

Councilman Jason Wiener passed it along. The compilation looks to be the work of city finance director Brentt Ramharter. Man, if I was the finance person in another city, I’d be hugging Ramharter right now. The CFO version of a hug, I guess. This has got to be the kind of thing that’s helpful for people in those other cities too, right?

Along with the document, Wiener passed on his analysis of the numbers:

The conclusion of this sheet looks to be that the cost to a household in Missoula for city services is typical for our peer cities.

Differences between the top line gross number for taxes, assessments and utilities and the comparable number stem from the higher rates paid for water and solid waste in Missoula when compared to cities where these are public utilities ($44 more than average for water, $126 more than average for solid waste) and also from the higher level of voted debt service in Missoula ($42 more than average).

Without measuring quality of services provided — e.g. acres of park per person, public safety officers per person — it’s not possible to know rates of relative efficiency but this cost data is a good first approximation measurement of what Missoulians get from government.

Hm. Want a second opinion? An assessment from another corner? Keep your fingers crossed for one of those too.

— Keila Szpaller

*Link didn’t work. Updated.

Lights off in Colorado Springs

Council folks are talking about the budget and maintenance districts this afternoon, and I’m waiting on some phone calls here and responding to some emails for other stories.

(One email is from someone who “can’t stand Liberal Newspapers.” He opens his letter with a thanks for responding to him even though he is old, and he closes his letter with this remark: “be good and stay in touch even if you are a liberal.”)

So on the budget, we’ll get some more info out about it this new way to pay for stuff before the public hearing on maintenance districts, which I think the council will set for sometime in early July.

In Colorado Springs, it looks like they haven’t had much luck finding money. The budget looks pretty bleak there, according to this Denver Post story that arrived today in my mailbox. Here’s an excerpt:

• Turning out the lights, literally, is one of the high-profile trims aggravating some residents. The city-run Colorado Springs Utilities will shut down 8,000 to 10,000 of more than 24,000 streetlights, to save $1.2 million in energy and bulb replacement.

Vendors there also worry a decrease in marketing dollars and economic development won’t be good news for that city of some 400,000. (Hm. The smell of opportunity. Can someone else, like Missoula and the Best Place Project, capitalize on their mess?)

“It’s going to hurt. If they don’t at least market Colorado Springs, it doesn’t get the people here,” said Nancy Stovall, owner of Pine Creek Art Gallery on the tourism strip of Old Colorado City. Other states, such as New Mexico and Wyoming, will continue to market, and tourism losses will further erode city sales-tax revenue, merchants say.

New Mexico, Wyoming, and … Montana?

The part of the story that caught the eye of the sender was this one:

Mayor and council are part-time jobs in Colorado Springs, points out Mayor Rivera, that pay $6,250 a year ($250 extra for the mayor).

They’ve got a city manager there too. No word on whether they’re locking up park bathrooms, and here, according to the mayor, an open and clean bathroom is one measure of how well a city is doing its job. Bets plenty of folks would put lighted street lamps in the mix too.

A HuffPost column referenced the story here this week.

— Keila Szpaller

Who are you calling a rubber stamp?

Will budget talks go from frustrated to uber-productive?

There was a hint of that possibility at Monday’s meeting of the Missoula City Council. Council folks aired some irritations, but some also said they were looking forward to the debates ahead.

Councilman Dave Strohmaier seemed inspired to not only continue his own council work — and he’s prolific — but he urged his peers to recommit to being “legislators at the local level.”

“Have you made a referral lately? Have you introduced a policy, an initiative that contributes to the quality of life here in Missoula? There’s 12 of us,” Strohmaier said. “There’s plenty of work to be done in the city. I think there’s opportunity to share the wealth and roll up our sleeves, and let’s get to it.”

Some frustration was aired during public comment. John Quandt, who ran for Councilman Bob Jaffe’s seat in the last city election, chastised council folks for some of their comments in recent budget discussions.

He took offense to the way Councilwoman Stacy Rye described the multitude of work done for constituents as a “pound of flesh.”

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Why did the chicken cross Reserve Street?

signal pic1. She was going to Wal-Mart to pick up wings.

2.She couldn’t see movie times listed in the newspaper anymore so she had to walk to the Carmike to peck at the schedule in person.

3. She was protesting the big-rigs rolling through to the Canadian oil fields.

4. She was tired of being called an “urban” chicken and wanted to get back to the country.

5. Why is the wrong question. The real question is this one: How long did the chicken have to cross the road?

Looks like people wanting to cross Reserve will have more time to do so, at least on the north side of Mullan. Estimates here appear to be based on the average stride of a person and not a chicken.

The extra time to cross will happen if a proposal to change the Mullan and Reserve intersection goes forward. The discussion comes up in this week’s Public Works Committee.

The graphic linked above and sent over by Public Works director Steve King shows that changes proposed for the intersection would give people nearly double the time to scoot across Reserve on the north end of the crossing.

Plus, King said the signals will be updated to show a countdown, like the picture he sent above. Those are just a couple small changes on tap for Reserve and Mullan, though. So far, Chicken Little hasn’t offered comments.

— Keila Szpaller

“Draconian” cuts in city services

Not here, so far. Here, the mayor’s 2011 budget proposal relies on a combination of cuts, delayed raises and tax increases.

Other cities, some on the brink of bankruptcy, aren’t faring as well. This WaPo story talks about those challenges, including trouble in the municipal bond market.

Here, the city finance director watches Missoula’s rating like a hawk, and last I heard earlier this year, we had a good grade.

This from the story:

The obligations of state and local governments have doubled in the past decade, to $2.4 trillion, according to a recent Federal Reserve report, a figure that excludes more than $1 trillion in unfunded pension and retiree health-care liabilities.

Generally, economists are not alarmed by increasing government debt during recessions because it stokes much-needed economic activity. But this time, concerns are deepening that the debt burden is too large for some municipalities to handle, forcing them into draconian service cuts or large tax increases, both of which would be a drag on the sputtering recovery.

— Keila Szpaller

And the Oscar goes to …

You decide. So tomorrow, the Missoulian runs a story about the idea to cut Missoula City Council meetings down to a couple a month.

I didn’t attend a recent committee meeting where our council peeps talked about it, but I heard it was an interesting discussion, and I got a DVD of it from MCAT.

Can I just admit that for the longest time, I didn’t know why they had a cat on their awning? Sheesh.

I watched the movie and quote some of the council folks in the story, but the comments get emotional and pointed, and they’re something you might want to see and hear for yourself. Especially the comments from Ross Best, toward the end, since he says he’s speaking on behalf of the public. He argues strongly against cutting so many meetings.

I tried to put the movie here so you could watch it, but as you may know, I sometimes need help with these things from our tech people. Here’s the deal. I’ll try to get it up here Monday, but if you want to borrow it, just e-mail me at Keila.Szpaller@Missoulian.com.

On another note, an apparent monotone, I had never heard of a vuvuzela until this World Cup, but I can picture a fair number of councilors blowing one at a meeting. Maybe they need one in chambers for emergencies. Anyway, I decided I need to look up the word in my home dictionaries and see if they’re in any of them. Don’t hold your breath.

— Keila Szpaller