University of Montana budget isn’t straightforward

alley pic

This sunrise is from yesterday when I was walking the dog through alleys in our Northside neighborhood.

Spring is here and you can feel it. It’s lovely. This morning, we passed a couple neighbors smoking cigarettes, one on her stoop, one on the sidewalk, and you can sense people easing into the season.

In July, the seeds that we plant now will be growing like crazy, and I’m thinking about that despite my dislike for gardening. But I’m also thinking about July because that’s when I hope we’ll have better financial numbers, or more clear information, from the University of Montana about where it’s spending – and not spending – this tight fiscal year, 2017. It ends June 30, 2017.

As UM has cut its budget, professors and others have decried cuts to certain programs, and I had hoped to get a crystal clear picture of where the money has really gone over the past few years and more. Unfortunately, it’s hard to do, and there are reasons for it that I’m not going to get into much right now.

I appreciate UM offering this data, though: Expenditures by Program for Red Tape. At the very least, it shows that since the 2008 fiscal year, a couple colleges have grown like mad. Dean Roberta Evans heads the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education and Human Sciences, and she didn’t return my requests for comment in time for the story, but I receive an email from her today about the significant growth in her area. But she’s had to cut as well, and Evans said this in the email:

Doing more with less is incredibly difficult; I can’t begin to tell you how inspiring it is to see brilliance, creativity and enduring commitment in outstanding colleagues who devote their careers to fulfilling students’ academic dreams, despite the sacrifices involved.

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New budget watchdog

Lyn Hellegaard

Councilman John Hendrickson passes on the microphone to Roy Houseman. That’s official. His unofficial role as a budget watchdog also will be filled.

Councilwoman Lyn Hellegaard, who worked as a banker for 20 years, said Hendrickson passed her the torch. (This photo from her City of Missoula Web page.)

“I was a banker for many years, so that’s just one of my areas, and I have agreed with Hendrickson that we need to get a handle on this,” Hellegaard said.

“This” is the budget, of course. Last year, Mayor John Engen told departments to pinch down spending, and they did. Hellegaard is thinking there’s a lot more squeezing to be done ahead.

City finance director Brentt Ramharter gives the council periodic updates, and Hellegaard put in a referral asking for one. She’s hoping it comes sooner rather than later.

Her approach might be different than Hendrickson’s. He was loud at the microphone, and so far, Hellegaard has been more watchful and quiet, though firm at times.

“I remember my second-grade teacher lecturing the class once. She said you never learn anything when your mouth is moving,” Hellegaard said. “So I’ve kind of used this (first couple years) to sit back, educate myself, (and) size up the territory.”

Her approach in the future? “I’ll continue to put the referrals in and hope we can have open discussions and work this stuff out.”

Sounds reasonable enough. Council president Ed Childers is hoping for a constructive council, too. He said a dozen alderfolks get elected, and 12 get to have input. He also said he doesn’t like a minority that just votes “no” on things like the budget.

“This is what I think,” Childers said. “The minority that functions best is one that tries to contribute to the things that are going on and make … the final product something that works best for everybody.”

Committee assignments and leadership roles are on the docket for next week. The council convenes again Monday, this time with Houseman.

‘Til then, Happy New Year.

— Keila Szpaller

Cars and P.S.

P.S. Are turkeys legal in city limits? I don’t think so and haven’t reread the ordinance, but Thanksgiving made me wonder. Probably, they’re too big and noisy.

Also, the city just got the OK from council to buy some cop cars and other big equipment, some $650,000 worth. That made sellers happy and didn’t go over well with some minority council folks. Here’s a letter from the city finance director explaining how the city is paying, and a list of the city’s vehicles and their conditions.

— Keila Szpaller

Working for the man

Today, Missoula’s got about the same ratio of city employees to population as it did roughly a decade ago, according to an analysis by Ward 1 Councilman Jason Wiener. His number-crunching shows the general fund pays for some 6.5 employees per 1,000 Missoulians.

Wiener’s conclusion: “We are handling just as much work per employee as we were a decade ago.”

Below is an e-mail from Wiener explaining the spreadsheet: Continue reading

Being frugal

To refill the city’s depleted reserves, Mayor John Engen asked department heads to find 3.7 percent worth of savings in their current budgets. The goal was to make up $1.7 million in savings. Here’s the list of who cut how much so far. Departments found $1.5 million total but some cut even more than they were asked. The following departments went the extra dollar: H.R. by $1,600, City Clerk by $9 (hey, every penny counts), I.T. by $2,000, Finance Department by $25,172, and Parks by $2,252. Also, here’s a letter of explanation from the mayor.

— Keila Szpaller

Pay more? What for?!

For a new chair, of course. “Pay more? What for?!” is the question Ward 5 Councilman Dick Haines asked this week during council’s budget discussion. He’s asked it before, and it’s rhetorical.

Haines has been among council members calling the mayor’s budget too fat. But after council folks test drove new chairs, just one councilor put in an order: Haines. During the test drive, he said this: “Your brain quits absorbing knowledge when your rear end starts to hurt.”

Per the city clerk: The order went in on April 11 for a chair that costs $339.90. “The invoice indicates it is a mesh-backed task chair with height-adjustable arms. We only purchased one chair.”

Budget 2010

Your electeds already are thinking about next year’s budget — that’s a good thing. A few ideas tossed up for 2010 — and some need fleshing out:

Mayor John Engen: Project no growth in planning the budget. That’d help avoid the “confusion” that erupted on council this year after the city overestimated its revenue. (Much more to needle through here.)

Ward 1 Councilman Dave Strohmaier: Reduce fuel consumption and increase energy conservation. Sounds like a formal request is already on the docket.

Ward 5 Councilman Dick Haines: Keep an eye on the overall economy and bet that trouble elsewhere eventually will mean challenges here. Plan ahead for bad times.

Ward 3 Councilwoman Stacy Rye: Finally get some moolah to neighborhood parks, which have been shorted before.

Pointy Heads

The heads of those liberals on the Missoula City Council? They’re pointy — not pretty, it so happens.

A fiery budget discussion at this week’s regular council meeting had one conservative councilman describing his fellow liberal councilors. “Pretty little heads,” quoth the reporter.

Tuesday, an e-mail arrived at the Missoulian with a most curious subject line: “The Shape of My Head.”

What? A YouTube video, perhaps? Like, McCain’s square jaw meets Obama’s outy ears? No.

“I’m pretty sure Dick (Ward 5 Councilman Dick Haines) characterized my head as pointy rather than pretty,” wrote Ward 1 Councilman Jason Wiener, and added a dash of self-deprecation. “At any rate, he’s the first to call it little.”

Soon enough, another note landed n this from Mayor John Engen — who told councilors Monday to behave instead of calling each other names.

“I note in this morning’s story Mr. Haines is quoted as saying ‘bless their pretty little heads.’ The audio, to which you may link below, makes it clear that Mr. Haines said ‘bless their pointed little heads.’ In my opinion, the misquoted version is merely condescending, while the direct quote is derogatory.”

Here’s the link: Just scroll all the way down to the recent meeting. Tip from Engen: Haines’ remarks begin at 1:18:19.

Point-y, point-ed, word is one councilor left the room asking whether his hat could fit upon his head, sharp as it was.

Before the meeting adjourned, though, Ward 5 Councilwoman Renee Mitchell made, uh, a point. She said people are strapped for cash.

“The people that we’re opting to tax also have increases in their gas, groceries, almost everything they do,” Mitchell said.

Support the city budget or not, that sounds on point. In any case, it sure ain’t pretty.

Mystery math and MRL

Local governments in Montana are irked at the Department of Revenue. The department tells cities and counties how much money they’ll collect, but the numbers seem to change without rhyme or reason. One piece of the apparently top-secret mathematical formula might be simple, though. At a recent meeting, Mayor John Engen said some of the math seems to be of the napkin-and-scratchpad variety. That might make a fun Freedom of Information Act request.

In any case, the money comes from taxable property. Those values in Missoula are going up overall — unless you own a railroad. Lucky Montana Rail Link. In 1998, the value of railroad property in Missoula was $647,000. In 2007, it was $313,000. That’s from a city finance document sourcing the DOR and Missoula County Assessors Office.

— Keila Szpaller