Now is the time to weigh in on the Missoula County budget

Revenues

Missoula County has released its preliminary budget for fiscal year 2020, and now commissioners want to hear from you.

To review the budget, head to http://missoula.co/budgets. There, you can access:

  • The preliminary, aka sustainment, budget. This budget reflects what it will cost to sustain current county operations. The sustainment budget factors in any increases in employee wages, benefits, utility costs, etc., that the county will experience in the coming fiscal year.
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    The sustainment budget is based on last year’s revenue. (Read How Missoula County calculates expenditures and revenues to understand why the county is using last year’s revenue to build this year’s budget.)

    Expenditures
    At first glance, it may look like the county’s expenditures will exceed revenue by $16.4 million, but that’s not the case. The reason revenue appears to be $16.4 million less than expenditures in FY20 is because the revenue needed to complete construction of the new Missoula Public Library was received in FY19 after the county issued voter-approved bonds to finance the project. The $27.5 million in bond revenue was placed in a construction reserve account (a savings account, basically) and is used to pay construction invoices each month. The county had approximately $18.8 million in that reserve account at the beginning the FY20, which will cover the cost to finish building the library by the end of the fiscal year (June 2020). So even though the county won’t receive that revenue in FY20, we have the money on hand to cover those expenses in FY20.

    As it currently stands, the county will need an additional $1.1 million to sustain current operations this year, when basing the budget on last year’s revenue. Once the county receives certified taxable values from the state Department of Revenue in August, we’ll adjust the budget to more accurately reflect how expenditures compare to revenues.

  • The list of budget requests that departments are asking for to enhance services and improve current operations by adding new staff, technology or equipment. Approved requests would add to the $1.1. million already needed to sustain operations and services as-is. (County staff are working to compile descriptions of these requests and will post those online as well.)
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    The commissioners have yet to make any decisions on which requests to fund. This is where you come in: The commissioners want to hear from taxpayers on what you think their priorities should be when considering these requests.

You can comment by:

  • Calling the Commissioners’ Office at 406-258-4877
  • Emailing bcc@missoulacounty.us
  • Mailing comments to the Commissioners’ Office, 200 W. Broadway St., Missoula, MT 59802.
  • Attending any public meeting, which are listed online at http://missoula.co/bccmeetings.

After considering public comment and weighing priorities, the commissioners will vote to approve or deny each request, which will be reflected in the final budget presented at the public hearing at 2 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22, in the Sophie Moiese Room in the Courthouse Annex, 200 W. Broadway. If you don’t get your comments in by then, you can attend the hearing and make your voice heard.

After they consider additional public comment received at the Aug. 22 hearing, the commissioners will vote to adopt the final budget at their administrative public meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 4. That meeting will take place at 10 a.m. in Room 206 of the Missoula County Administrative Building, located at 199 W. Pine St. in Missoula.

Additional Missoula County budget resources:

2019 Budget in Brief
Video Tutorial: How to Look Up Your Property Taxes Online
Commissioners’ schedule
Commissioners’ meeting minutes and agenda portal 

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Why can’t commissioners ban fireworks? The difference between county and city government

Fireworks

One of the most common requests constituents ask of commissioners is if they will consider enacting various ordinances addressing issues throughout the county.

A frequent example tends to pop up this time of year, when commissioners start fielding requests to implement an ordinance banning residents from lighting fireworks on private property in the county, like the city does.

While commissioners themselves may support the idea behind suggested ordinances, here’s the catch: Unlike municipalities, such as the City of Missoula, county government is a general powers government. This means commissioners cannot enact specific ordinances or laws unless the state has explicitly granted them the power to do so.

On the other hand, a municipality with a self-governing charter, like Missoula and most other cities in Montana, can enact ordinances as long as doing so is “not expressly prohibited by the Montana constitution, state law or its charter.”

For Missoula County to ban fireworks, the Montana Legislature would need to pass, and the governor would need to sign, a bill granting counties the authority to ban fireworks. But since it has a charter providing for self-governing powers, the City of Missoula can ban fireworks all it wants, unless the Legislature passes a bill barring municipalities from prohibiting fireworks. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and the county can prohibit lighting fireworks on private property when the risk of forest fires warrants it. The county also can prohibit lighting off fireworks on county property, including county parks and recreation areas.

Counties in Montana were originally established as an extension of state government, when distance and geography significantly hindered the state’s ability to conduct business effectively. Today, counties still administer many roles on behalf of the state (think vehicle titling and registration, elections, criminal prosecution, etc.). For their role in this, commissioners essentially serve as the executive branch of the state, enforcing state laws and providing the system of check and balances enshrined in our bedrock governing documents.

What can county commissioners do, then?

Per MCA 7-3-401, “all legislative, executive and administrative powers and duties of the local government not specifically reserved by law or ordinance to other elected officials reside in the commission.”

In Missoula County, this means commissioners can:

  • Approve county contracts, employee agreements and grants
  • Review, adjust and approve all department budgets to fund county priorities. The approved budget is a major factor in determining the amount of tax revenue the county will need to fund operations.
  • Vote to put citizen-driven initiatives on the ballot
  • Pass resolutions that set county priorities and direct staff efforts, such as the resolution to attain carbon neutrality in county operations by 2035. Resolutions can also address imminent threats to public safety or health, such as those declaring a state of emergency amid flooding, wildfires or other natural disasters.
  • Direct staff to develop and implement county guidance documents, such as the Jail Diversion Master Plan and the Community Wildfire Protection Plan. Commissioners also must vote to adopt these plans before they can be implemented.
  • Create and enforce zoning regulations dictating what sort of development can occur in an area
  • Create separate taxing districts to encourage development or fund public infrastructure and services in a specific area of the county. These most often occur in the form of Tax Increment Finance Districts (TIFs), Targeted Economic Development Districts (TEDDs) and Rural Special Improvement Districts (RSIDs).
  • Advise the City-County Health Board on creating and enforcing health codes that protect public health and the natural environment
  • Create and enforce subdivision regulations
  • Appoint community members to serve on advisory and governing boards

What is a constituent to do then if they see a need for a law or ordinance outside city limits? Your best bet is to take it up with your state representative and senator. They can pursue legislation in Helena granting counties the power to create and enforce a specific ordinance.

Or, you can vote in favor of a conducting a local government study, which could include consideration of a charter granting the county self-governing powers. This constitutionally mandated resolution appears on the ballot every 10 years to provide flexibility and accountability for local government in Montana. (You can read more about the last time Missoula County conducted a local government study, in the mid-2000s, in the Missoulian archives.)

If you want to go that route though, you’ll have to be patient – residents voted down the measure in 2014, and it won’t appear on the ballot again until 2024.

What other questions do you have about county government? Comment here, and we’ll answer them in future posts.

Surprised by your property appraisal? Here are your options

DOR cropped

Did you recently receive this document in the mail?

This is not a tax bill from Missoula County. It’s an appraisal notice issued by the Montana Department of Revenue showing the current assessed value of your property. DOR appraises the value of real property every two years, so the value listed on your form applies to tax years 2019 and 2020. The state DOR, not the county, calculates this value, which is a key factor in determining the property taxes you’ll owe this year. Those property taxes help fund several taxing jurisdictions you live in, including the county.

DOR logo

Many Missoula County residents are experiencing sticker shock upon opening their notices. If you feel the assessed value on your property is inaccurate, you can appeal it during a 30-day window from June 18 through July 18. Do not wait until you receive your tax bill in October – it will be too late!

You can start this process in one of two ways:

If you miss the July 18 deadline, you can still appeal the assessment until June 1, 2020. But if you wait until then to appeal, any changes to your assessment would only apply to tax year 2020, not the 2019 tax bill you’ll receive this fall.

It’s also important to note that the estimated taxes listed on the notice do not include special assessments. Special assessments are determined by the location of your property, i.e., if you live in a certain school, fire, water quality or other special district. You can view the special assessments that will be levied on your property by downloading your current tax bill on the Missoula County iTax website.

Still have questions about your appraisal notice? Contact a DOR property assessment field office to talk to an appraiser.

Missoula County Budget in Brief: A primer on where your tax dollars go

BiB cover

You receive your tax bill from us each year, but do you ever wonder what the taxes you pay to Missoula County help fund? Then be sure to check out the fiscal year 2019 Budget in Brief, our annual publication breaking down the various aspects of the county budget process.

From calculating property taxes, revenue and expenditures to highlighting the services, capital projects, and voter-approved levies and bonds taxes will fund, the Budget in Brief demonstrates how the county aims to be a responsible steward of our constituents’ dollars.

While property taxes aren’t the sole source of revenue for the county, they do make up the largest share. Elected officials and staff want to make sure they’re being put toward protecting and enhancing the quality of life we enjoy here in Missoula County. The Budget in Brief is an opportunity for taxpayers to review and understand the process so they can more effectively weigh in on this mission.

Think there’s room for improvement? Stay tuned for more details on how you can get involved in the FY 2020 budget process, which will kick off this spring. Once finalized, we’ll publish more information and a schedule of public budget meetings on this blog.

Affected by the shutdown? These resources can help

brown bridge against green scenery
PHOTO: Andrew Kemmis Photography

As it enters its second month, the government shutdown continues to impact hundreds of federal employees and contractors in Missoula County. With more missed paychecks on the horizon, Missoula County has compiled the following list of resources that are providing assistance to furloughed federal employees and contractors in our communities.

Financial assistance

Several local banks are offering low or no-interest loans and other financial assistance to furloughed workers:

Missoula Federal Credit Union
Emergency loans for federal employees. The maximum loan size will be one month’s gross pay, up to $5,000, and there will be no payments required for the first 90 days.  Full-time financial counselor on staff to help members free of charge.

Farmers State Bank 
Emergency Assistance Consumer Loans. Designed for those affected by the government shutdown, this consumer loan is meant to assist individuals with mortgage or car payments, groceries, medical bills, etc. Proof of furlough is needed or proof of working with payment being held during shutdown. Details online.

First Interstate Bank
Offering payment due date extensions, minimal fees.

Wells Fargo
Call the recently established customer assistance line at 800-219-9739 to be connected with a team member who can assist based on needs, or visit any Wells Fargo branch for assistance. Fees waived. Individual assistance offered based on needs.

Navy Federal Credit Union
The credit union is offering 0% APR loans during the government shutdown.

First Command Financial Services
Offering clients who are federal employees interest-free payroll advances and other assistance.

Democracy Federal Credit Union
Call 800-742-5582 for information on short-term emergency loans with 0% interest.

Agencies providing unemployment information and financial advice include:

Montana Department of Labor and Industry
FAQ for furloughed federal employees. Due to high call volume, the best way to file a claim is online at www.ui4u.mt.gov. Furloughed employees needing computer access can visit the Missoula Job Service, 539 S. Third St. W.

VALIC
Can assist with emergency hardship withdrawals from retirement plans for Missoula County staff who have family members impacted by the shutdown.

Nationwide
Can assist with emergency hardship withdrawals from retirement plans for Missoula County staff who have family members impacted by the shutdown.

TANF
Income-based cash assistance program providing temporary assistance for families in need.

Missoula County Clerk and Treasurer
Will offer temporary assistance for motor vehicle registration and property tax payments. Federal employees can fill out a form before renewing their registration at the courthouse, and the department will place a hold on cashing checks until the shutdown ends. Should the shutdown last through May, when the next property tax bills are due, property tax payments will be discussed.

Temporary work

Furloughed employees seeking temporary work can tap into the following resources:

Missoula County Human Resources 
Missoula County frequently has openings for short-term employment. Go online or call 258-4874 for more information.

Temp agencies in Missoula
Express
Nelson
People Ready
Work Force
LC Staffing
A to Z Personnel

Energy, utility and housing assistance

The following programs can offer assistance with household utilities during the shutdown:

LIEAP
Provides supplemental heating assistance for a household’s primary source of heat. To apply, call the Human Resource Council at 728-3710 or walk in from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Located at 1801 S. Higgins Ave.

Energy Share
Helps households facing an immediate energy emergency when they have exhausted all other resources. Energy Share can help households who have used up their energy assistance benefit or do not qualify for LIEAP. To apply, call the Human Resource Council at 728-3710 or walk in during business hours.

Missoula Electric Cooperative
Furloughed employees should contact billing department at 541-4433 to discuss payment options.

Missoula Water
Offers a monthly credit to LIEAP-eligible households. Complete a request form at the Human Resource Council, 1801 S. Higgins Ave.

Salvation Army Winter Shelter Program
Helps with rent for individuals and families who are at risk of being evicted. Call 549-0710 to make an appointment.

Grocery assistance

Those needing assistance with grocery costs during the shutdown can access the following programs and services:

Missoula Food Bank
No criteria or questions. Those in need of food should go to 1720 Wyoming St.

WIC
Call 258-4740 and state that you are furloughed employee; month by month eligibility; based on family income.

SNAP
Provides supplemental food assistance to individuals and families with qualifying incomes.

Other assistance

Partnership Health Center
Provides integrated primary care health services to the public including medical and dental care, behavioral health counseling, pharmacy and a lab. Offers a sliding fee scale for those with and without insurance.

Human Resource Council/2-1-1
Provides general information and resources for those affected by the shutdown online at http://211.org/services/govshutdown.

Is your organization offering a service or other benefit to furloughed workers? Let us know by filling out the Community Services for Furloughed Workers form.

New leadership on horizon for Community and Planning Services

The new year brings with it new leadership for the Community and Planning Services department, affectionately known as CAPS here at Missoula County.

After a decades-long career with the county, including the last seven as chief planning officer, Pat O’Herren is hanging up his hat at the end of the year. During his tenure, O’Herren built partnerships with other agencies, nonprofits and private property owners, helping Missoula County evolve as a leader in protecting and enhancing our cultural, economic and conservation resources. He’ll leave some pretty big shoes to fill.

Chet Crowser
Chet Crowser

Stepping into those shoes will be Chet Crowser. Crowser comes to Missoula County from Fish, Wildlife and Parks, where he served as the regional parks manager for Montana State Parks in Missoula. He’s well-known for his leadership skills – just ask anyone who’s had him as a boss – and that’s exactly why county commissioners chose him to fill the role.

“As CAPS evolves to focus more on broad community issues and services, we are thrilled to bring on someone with Chet’s relationship-building skills and knowledge of the public engagement process,” Commissioner Nicole “Cola” Rowley says. “We’re confident Chet will provide the leadership necessary to successfully guide the department as it fulfills the many roles it plays in our communities.”

Those roles include land-use planning, zoning, parks and trails management, and grant administration, just to name a few. Engaging a leader who can manage such a diverse array of responsibilities is key.

Having worked in a variety of city, state and federal recreation programs throughout the West, including his experience overseeing 10 state parks while at Montana FWP, Chet has an extensive background in parks management. He’s also participated in many planning, visioning and policy-development efforts while with the agency, and he looks forward to bringing this experience to CAPS.

“I’m excited to join CAPS and take part in the great work that staff do every day to maintain and enhance the quality of life we all value so much in Missoula County,” Crowser says. “I look forward to working with the commissioners, county staff, partners and the public to address the important issues our communities face now and into the future.”

A new boss isn’t the only change in store for CAPS in 2019: The department will soon move from its current building on West Alder Street to a new location at 127 E. Main St., Suite 2. That transition is expected to take place in mid- to late January.