What’s the Real Missoula: Generous Hippie or Quiet Conservative?

A long-standing split on the City Council arises again over dump trucks – and illustrates a basic philosophical divide

Missoula is a liberal town ready to shell out bucks to support its progressive ideals, or the Garden City is a dollars-and-cents conservative place, anxious to rein in government and trim taxes.

Whatever the state’s perception of Missoula may be (as the state’s bleeding heart, usually), the Missoula City Council has either been been split 7-5 or evenly divided—often along classic liberal-conservative lines—for years. And as the economic crunch continues, that debate has gotten even louder.

The most recent flare-up arose over $651,000 allotted for new dump trucks and other city vehicles. According to Mayor John Engen‘s office, the purchase, which the council approved on a 7-5 vote last week, fit the city’s basic mission, to take care of necessities such as fixing streets while reducing long-term fuel costs. Over the last decade, while growing in size by about one-third, the city has cut unleaded gas usage by 10 percent and diesel by 8 percent.

But that’s not how everyone sees it.

“I’m concerned that we’re spending money we may wish we hadn’t down the road,” said Ward 5 Councilman Dick Haines, a former Republican state legislator.

Haines objects to big cash outlays in tough financial times, but he has a larger objection to the way Missoula does business. The town has too many programs with fuzzy missions but crystal clear price tags.

“I don’t think we’re getting our money’s worth,” Haines said.

“No,” said Jason Wiener of Ward 1, countering Haines’ logic. The city supports what its citizens want, he said, and the recent vehicle acquisitions is a perfect example. “This is the core mission of the city. We’re talking about dump trucks here. This is street maintenance. Our mission isn’t to grow incessantly but to provide basic services.”

Weiner mentioned other points about the vehicle purchase—that the cost will be spread out of three to five years with the city paying about 4 percent interest, and the vehicles will likely last 20 years. “It’s responsible fiscal policy,” he said.

On the larger question of the role of government, Wiener said more than 85 percent of the town’s population feel the city has been doing a good job providing services. People want streets to be repaired and for the city to support programs like Missoula In Motion, because it fits their ideal of a city striving to make the world a better place.

The real issue, Wiener said, is that the Montana Legislature in the 1990s cut its contributions to municipal financing (in part with a measure capping the basic municipal tax at half the rate of inflation, year over year) and took away other ways for cities raise revenues to make up the difference.

“The central problem we have, in terms of the budget,” he said, “is we have revenues that go up at less than the rate of inflation and costs that go up at least that fast. It’s a philosophy called ‘Starve the Beast,’ but city government is not a dragon. It’s a workhorse, and it’s not going to be able to get things done if we don’t take care of it.”

Take parks, for instance, Wiener added. Missoula residents consistently ask for more parks, but the city has hundreds of acres for a regional park on the south side of town but no money to make it happen.

“I don’t see the situation as sustainable,” Wiener said. He hopes the Montana Legislature will put some more funding options on the table for cities. If not, Missoula will soon have to dig deeper, limiting further its ability to deliver services.

Haines has the opposite point of view. He hears Missoula residents who applaud his efforts to limit spending and tax increases. (Haines described Wiener’s starve-the-beast tax increase as overlarge and “unnecessary.”)

He plans to keep debating increases and frivolous spending until his side can muster a majority, he said.

“The only way I think things will change is at the next election, if we can change the majority,” Haines said. “If (more spending) is what people want in Missoula, that’s fine, but I don’t think that is what people want.”

(This first appeared on Dec. 1, 2008 on a now-defunct web site.)

 

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