We All Do Better When We All Do Better

Last week, the Missoula Independent published an interesting article about the fight the city is in to buy Mountain Water. As thought provoking as the Mountain Water debate may be, that is not what piqued my interest. The article discussed the role of government, and how much Missoulians are willing to invest to support the very things the community needs like schools, parks, public safety, and sidewalks and roads.

I encourage you to read the entire article, but it is long – nearly 3500 words. It “cuts straight to the main issue: an ideological difference over property taxes.” Below I highlight some topics to consider.

According to the article, since Mayor Engen was elected in 2005, Missoula city taxes have increased 44 percent. Missoula City Councilman Adam Hertz says, “there’s no doubt the budget has ballooned since he’s been the mayor.” Hertz takes issue with a number of expenditures including:

  • The lawsuit expenses over Mountain Water,
  • The city’s generous health care plan,
  • The municipal cemetery, and
  • The city’s intention to replace 8.5 miles of sidewalk and pave 16.6 miles.

To which Missoula Mayor John Engen replies,

“I believe that my view reflects the majority view of what taxes are in Missoula and, I think, maybe around the country. But there is clearly another view that is held very strongly, that there are some things we ought to be in this together on, but not many. And maybe that’s the fundamental rub. I think there’s more that we should be in on together.

The fact is I give you police service and fire service and streets and a long list of other things that make our life together here collectively work for less than you pay for cable,’ Mayor Engen says. ‘It’s a value message. You know, Ronald Reagan did a great job of convincing people that taxes are evil and that government is bad and that this is just a mechanism for wasteful people to transfer wealth from the wealthy to the lazy poor—and it’s not. It’s the way we work together.’”

That’s what we believe – we believe government is simply the way communities work together. Well-funded schools benefit each of us with an educated workforce that promotes a healthy economy and lower incarceration rates. We believe that investing in infrastructure like bridges and pothole-free roads helps everyone. We believe that we all need police and fire departments to keep us safe. We believe that financially supporting community spaces, parks, clean water, and sidewalks increases the value of our communities and our lives.

We call these expenditures investments because that is what the government is doing with our collective tax dollars – investing in our communities.

The article gives this great example on personnel expenditures:

“In 2015, MPD’s personnel costs will have increased by 40 percent since 2007. Next year, $13.179 million is budgeted to employ 129 full-time department staffers.

Engen acknowledges MPD is larger and better paid than when he first took office. That’s by design, he says. Back in 2006, MPD officers were some of the lowest paid in the state. That led to Missoula footing the bill for training new officers who would then leave the city for better-paying positions in other communities.”

Personnel costs represent an investment in keeping good employees and lowering the cost of recruiting and training in the long run. It is also an investment in the public safety of the community.

“Fundamentally, Engen believes that community members are stronger when they’re united by government and common goals. Patrick Barkey, director of the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, notes there’s another, more tangible payoff. Taxes that maintain and improve community amenities such as schools, police, fire and parks add value to real estate prices. To test the theory of whether tax rates in Missoula are a good investment, Barkey says to look at real estate value.

‘Missoula’s home prices are among the highest in the state,’ he says”.

There are many ways we can and should invest in our communities that benefit individuals, families, and business alike. When we all have affordable homes, safe streets, good-paying jobs, and community spaces that allow us to enjoy our beautiful state – we all do better.

So, cheers to the Missoula Independent for publishing such an exhaustive discussion of the relationship between a city government and its citizens. Missoulians’ investments in the public good help make Missoula a wonderful place to live, bike, run, work and visit.

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