Making Ends Meet

By Beacon Staff

The Kalispell City Council sat down last week with some very thick binders and dug into the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Under City Manager Jim Patrick’s plan, Kalispell would hire two new police officers, with one assigned to Glacier High School, a part-time clerk for the municipal court and an assistant for Patrick. Two new police cruisers and the need for a new ladder fire truck were also part of the mix.

The staffing and equipment, Patrick told the council, were a necessity if the city is to continue serving a rapidly growing population.

How to pay for it? A slight increase in property taxes to account for inflation will raise about $70,836. The tax increase will cost the owner of a $150,000 home an additional $4.29 a year. A $100,000 home would increase $2.83. Patrick estimates city growth will generate $295,910 to help meet increasing costs.

The council’s discussion was limited to the general fund, which makes up $10,674,429 of a budget totaling $63,246,606 for fiscal year 2008. The general fund covers the government’s administration, the court and city attorney, the police department, fire department, public works, and parks and recreation.

Like every year, Patrick said, assembling a budget is a constant struggle to apportion a finite amount of revenue. A case in point is the new police officers.

“We wanted to add about three new police officers and we’re only going to add two,” Patrick said in a later interview.

While a lifesaver in terms of the revenue growth provides, the city doesn’t receive that revenue until about 18 months after a new resident forks over their taxes. In the meantime, that new resident requires city services immediately.

“Growth occurs now,” Patrick said. “Does it pay for itself? Eventually it catches up.”

State law limits local governments from increasing property tax rates more than half the rate of inflation, averaged over the previous three years.

Both Patrick and City Council member Randy Kenyon lamented that Kalispell can’t raise funds in other ways, namely through a local option sales tax. Numerous attempts to allow cities to vote on whether to have a sales tax failed in the most recent state Legislature.

“It’s done wonders in Whitefish,” Kenyon said. “That was such a shame that local legislators and state-wide legislators weren’t willing to support that.”

Perhaps the biggest dilemma the council faces is the dire need for a new ladder fire truck and the lack of funds to buy a new one. According to Fire Chief Randy Brodehl, Kalispell’s current ladder truck is 30 years old, breaks down often, and can only reach a height of 85 feet. The height of the city’s buildings requires that the ladder truck reach 105 feet.

“It does meet spec, however, it spends an inordinate amount of time in the shop,” Brodehl said. If a structure fire were to occur in downtown Kalispell when the current ladder truck was down, he added, the next nearest truck that could reach a comparable height is in Missoula.

New ladder trucks cost about $700,000, but the city only has about $120,000 in fire impact fees to contribute toward the purchase. At its June 4 meeting this week, the council plans to discuss how to raise the additional funds, either through a loan or a bond.

The need for a new ladder truck, Brodehl said, encapsulates perfectly council members’ struggle to fund public services while avoiding taxing Kalispell residents too heavily.

“They understand the need for it, and they certainly are looking for ways to make this happen,” Brodehl added. “They have tough budget decisions to make.”

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