Missoula budget cuts: How tight is the belt?

Mayor John Engen’s proposed 2011 budget includes an estimated $1.11 million in “offsets and reductions.”

That’s according to this spreadsheet from city finance director Brentt Ramharter.

The cuts include travel, training, subscriptions, supplies, gasoline, “professional services” (out-of-town consultants who study things?), salaries, police officers, insurance and more.

The Missoula Police Department chopped two traffic officer positions for a savings of $203,783.

Continue reading

Missoula mayor adopts “first cat”

Moose at homeMissoula Mayor John Engen and his honey, Tracy Engen, have adopted a cat named “Moose.”

This report and picture come from Kathleen Kimble, a Missoulian assistant news editor.

A volunteer … alerted me to this update picture posting of Engen’s new shelter cat adopted during PetFest.

I personally witnessed the mayor completing the Humane Society paperwork — no exceptions or special treatment for his highness!!

The “first cat” Moose has very blue eyes and is a beauty (and I don’t like cats).

But this frisky feline knows how to help himself to water and can ambush canines, probably even hypoallergenic White House dogs. In an e-mail last week, Mayor Engen offered this pet update:

Moose is our new cat, adopted last Saturday from the Humane Society of Western Montana. The dogs defer to him, as do I, generally.

He did indeed get into the sink himself and appears capable of getting just about anywhere he wants to get: kitchen counters, furniture, the bed. He’s hilarious to watch unless you’re Odie, who is occasionally the target of a covert operation executed by Moose wherein the crouching cat winds up and charges the dog. Odie’s response is to look at Tracy or me and pretend nothing is happening.

Odie, while still very shy around strangers, is turning into a happy boy. He loves walks and watching TV. Patches, the 11-year-old greyhound, also loves walks and never met a meal she didn’t want to eat. (We share that trait.)

I wonder if Odie watches the mayor on MCAT.

— Keila Szpaller

Missoula Outdoor Cinema shows “Mamma Mia!” on Friday

Missoula Outdoor Cinema wraps up the season this weekend with an extra show. “Mamma Mia!” plays Friday evening in the old Whittier School playground on the Northside. “The Dark Knight” runs Saturday night.

Zut alors, this event rocks and has got to be one of the coolest things going on in the neighborhood. There’s even a live popcorn popping machine you can watch if you don’t like the movie.

Last weekend, “The Big Lebowski” drew the biggest crowd of the season, at least 500 people, according to the North Missoula Community Development Corporation. (“I can get you a toe by 3 o’clock this afternoon.”)

Here’s a brief report on the season from NMCDC’s Jerry Petasek, who wants to spread the word about the extra Friday movie.

“Every night this (year) has been a field filler and attendance has been much greater than any year previous. We started to use a donation count as a sign of attendance, but we quickly realized that the two items were seldom related. We’d had nights where the field was packed, but the donations were nonexistent. Just depends on the generosity of the crowd. And this is also why our sponsors are so important to us. If we can get enough sponsors to cover the cost of the season, we don’t fret as much on the donation side.”

Continue reading

Former Missoula councilman pitches budget cuts

Don Nicholson turned up this week at the Missoula City Council meeting, and the former councilman offered some ideas for budget cuts.

City budget talks sometimes stay in the realm of the philosophical, but Nicholson got down and dirty on dollars in Council Chambers.

He said the amount of money budgeted for the pools has some padding that can go. It’s an $80,000 find, Nicholson said.

Nicholson also said that while he knows it’s “sacrilege” to talk about cutting police officers, most of the city’s budget is in personnel. He suggested letting the police force shrink by 10 to 15 positions as officers retire or leave.

He also suggested the city could drop its $10,000 contribution to the Missoula City Band. Not that Nicholson doesn’t like the tunes.

“The city band is a wonderful band. It truly is,” Nicholson said.

But he said the band has accumulated a healthy nest egg of its own and doesn’t need the support to remain wonderful.

In short, Nicholson asked council folks to either keep taxes the same as last year or lower them.

— Keila Szpaller

Protest period runs through Sept. 7

The Missoula City Council unanimously agreed late Monday to extend the protest period for special districts. The deadline is 5 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 7.

Did you catch that the person who put this item on the agenda is Councilman Jason Wiener? A councilor in favor of the overall budget proposal, including districts? I’d be surprised if any of the folks in the majority vote against the mayor’s budget, but a rubber stamper wouldn’t have made this move.

Continue reading

Coffee recommended for Monday night Missoula City Council meeting

The Missoula City Council agenda is a doozy this week.

Carmike Cinemas wants to add 800 seats and a couple big screens in an expansion, plus bike and car parking. (And “pedestrian facilities,” although I haven’t read committee minutes and am not sure what that means. A shoe shine station like at the airport?)

The city wants to raise fees for huge loads rolling through town, and also make sure giant trucks — not just big houses — are charged. The proposal is to bill $200 instead of $100 a load, and Public Works director Steve King said the fees haven’t been updated since 1988. He said the Kearl project prompted a review of the fees. (There’s bonding requirements, too, but unless I’ve missed something, they only apply to the over-sized homes. Maybe that’s ’cause the Montana Department of Transportation would collect enough money from Exxon/Imperial Oil so there’s money to fix stuff the bigrigs ruin? That’s a guess.)

There’s also some assessments on the docket. Normally, they wouldn’t be controversial, but this year, maybe the council will hear some comments. A couple of the assessments are for traffic calming, and those are at the request of citizens and so I wouldn’t think they’d be controversial. We’ll see.

There’s a contract for painting bike lanes, and a request to extend the protest period for the road and park districts through Sept. 7. Currently, the deadline is this Wed., 5 p.m.

You know how they say the busier you are, the more you get done? Well, sometimes, that’s true at the council meetings. When there’s just a couple things on the agenda, someone gets windy and off topic and the meeting goes on and on and on.

Maybe tonight, with so much to do, efficiency will reign, and a good time will be had by all.

— Keila Szpaller

Moody’s predicts doubledip recession for Missoula; mayor bullish

Missoula Mayor John Engen voiced doubts Wednesday on CNBC that Missoula will suffer from a double-dip recession.

The number of cities in recovery has plateaued, and more cities are in danger of backsliding, according to a Moody’s analysis quoted in this story.

The list notes Missoula as troubled, but Engen said in the national broadcast the finding is based on an old picture of Missoula’s economy.

“We’re pretty lucky here,” Engen said during the live broadcast, explaining both Missoula and Montana don’t experience the economic high-highs or low-lows that other parts of the country do.

“The Moody’s piece points to trends in the timber industry, a decline that’s been going on the past 30 years, and so we are pretty accustomed to dealing with that and we’ve diversified.”

The show, “Street Signs with Erin Burnett” also brought Utica, N.Y., Mayor David Roefaro to speak. Roefaro confirmed Utica is raising taxes 7.25 percent, but he also said it isn’t much compared with a couple neighbors, upping taxes 46 percent and 48 percent.

Um, ouch.

In a phone call, city finance director Brentt Ramharter shared the rates of city property tax increases in recent years:

2011, proposed: 3.5 percent (special districts of 2 percent plus health costs)

2010: 0 percent

2009: 4.8 percent

2008: 3.66 percent

2007: 4.25 percent

Engen mentioned the special districts in the interview, and that’s one thing that’s caught attention here at home. Some folks fear that without a cap, those fees will just go up and up and up. So far, no one has talked about ideas to restrict them.

But there’s another budget discussion this afternoon. See you there.

— Keila Szpaller

Missoula economic recovery is slow but (supposedly) under way

In Missoula, economic recovery is slow but under way.  (Supposedly.) That’s what an economist said in this story about growth the next three years in the Missoula area.

It’s baby steps for Missoula, evidently. The information came from the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

Montana didn’t fare as well as predicted by regional economists, (director Patrick Barkey) said, because “numbers show Montana’s economic growth was much weaker than originally thought going into the recession.”

Moving forward, the state won’t likely see any rebound in the hard-hit construction industry.

I hope those academics are correct that the recession really is “in the rearview mirror,” but this week, the prediction seems hard to swallow.

Continue reading

Missoula City Cemetery featured in national magazine

Missoula City Cemetery funds were on the agenda this week at the spirited council meeting. (Nope, I never thought I’d write a headline like the one above. A national cemetery magazine?)

Cemetery Board Chairwoman Sharee Fraser talked about why the cemetery is cooperating with the administration’s request that revenue once headed into cemetery accounts go into the general fund for a couple years. Here’s a copy of her talk.

She also talked about the cemetery’s need for financial stability so folks can continue to run a strong operation and create pleasing grounds.

“We have maintained a beautiful, serene place of rest with utter respect for those buried there and their families,” Fraser said, reading from the prepared statement.

Those old trees really are beautiful there, and it’s a pleasant green space in the neighborhood.

Evidently, the cemetery is doing so well, it’s captured the attention of a national publication. Fraser said the fall issue of American Cemetery Magazine will run a story that features Missoula. How about that?

I don’t know the topic of the article, but I’ll be calling the folks here and hopefully finding out and letting you know in a story.

— Keila Szpaller

John Hendrickson campaigns against the budget

HendricksonJohn Hendrickson, who represents the Missoula Building Industry Association, spoke out last night against the new taxes in Mayor John Engen’s budget.

Is former Councilman Hendrickson’s campaign against the proposed special districts the beginning of a campaign for mayor?

Councilman Bob Jaffe noted a change in Hendrickson’s attitude in his (Jaffe’s) most recent committees report:

“I have to say that he is much more pleasant to work with as an industry lobbyist than as a council member. Maybe there is something to be said for the revolving door after all.”

Especially if you want the door to revolve again and put you in the mayor’s seat. Engen, of course, is still in the first year of his second four-year term.

Hendrickson offered a criticism others have aired about the special districts. The administration is using the money to make the budget pencil out, and not for “special” upgrades to streets and parks.

“Balancing the budget is not an improvement or an enhancement or anything else,” Hendrickson said.

Engen runs the meeting with patience and often lets people at the microphone comment at length, but after a while, and another while, he told Hendrickson the comments were getting a little long.

Hendrickson politely bowed out, but you haven’t seen the last of him.

— Keila Szpaller