Budgets, Lawyers, Sanctuary Cities- John Engen’s Office Answers Eight Talk Back Questions
The following questions were gathered from Talk Back listeners on Monday, October 24 and sent to Mayor John Engen's office for a response. The questions and answers are posted in full below, without any additions. Questions are in bold type.
1. In budget resolutions, some expenditures by the city are currently grouped and classified as "miscellaneous" is there an easy way to see what these expenditures consist of? Would it be possible to have the line items available for the public to see when city council passes them?
A budget resolution does not have nearly this level of detail. It is a simple document approving a total dollar level of appropriations. It does not reference any expenditure groups. For instance, for the current fiscal year: https://www.ci.missoula.mt.us/DocumentCenter/View/40972 Actual budgets for departments do show miscellaneous expenditures broken out. For instance, from the Finance Department budget: http://www.ci.missoula.mt.us/DocumentCenter/View/40901
2. Many cities across the country have declared that they will not cooperate with Trump's crackdown on illegal immigration. Many of these of these municipalities have passed "sanctuary city" laws. Does Mayor Engen and the City support other cities in passing these laws? Has he considered anything like this in Missoula? why or why not?
The beauty of local government in a system like ours is that local governments get to determine their own destinies and the destinies of the communities they serve. Missoula, Mayor Engen notes, has an extremely low population of undocumented people, so there is no need for a “sanctuary city” law. Mayor Engen supports local governments being able to make decisions based on their community’s values. (Note from GM: This reflects Mayor Engen’s sentiments. As to whether “the City” has an opinion, I’m not sure whose opinion you’re looking for; if you asked the nearly 500 staff members and 12 City Council representatives, you’d likely hear a variety of opinions.)
3. Why wasn't there a protest option for the public regarding the issuance of $138 Million in bonds for the water system, when there was a protest option provided to the public for the smaller proposed safety and justice district? Can you explain the process here?
Issuing revenue bonds and forming special districts are apples and oranges, two completely different things. Cities use revenue bonds, as the City of Missoula did for purchase of Missoula Water, very commonly. The majority of the financing the City of Missoula does in a year uses revenue bonds. Revenue bonds are secured by and repaid by revenue from an enterprise. For instance, a revenue bond might fund a wastewater treatment plant upgrade or the purchase of a water utility, both of which have rates associated with them in sewer and water bills. There is no protest provision for the issuance of revenue bonds. It’s worth noting that revenue bonds differ from general obligation bonds, which are used to fund big capital needs and are put to public vote because they involve a pledge to levy specific taxes to repay them – for instance, an open space bond or the creation of Fort Missoula Regional Park. Once you understand that, you can understand why the statement that the purchase of the water system will “raise taxes,” a remark that has been thrown around in recent months, is not accurate. Acquisition and legal expenses are covered by water utility revenue. The City Council, of course, was required to approve the bond sale, which it did with a unanimous vote. Special districts are geographical areas of a city that provide a way to pay for maintenance of and improvements to such services as parks and roads through assessments to property owners in the area. The process for forming them includes notification of property owners, a public hearing on the creation of a City Council resolution, a protest period and a public hearing to create the district and set the assessment. That process is dictated by state law, Title 7, Chapter 11, Part 10 of the Montana Code Annotated.
4. When will detailed billing for the Mountain Water legal fees be released? We have heard that they can't be released because of pending litigation, when do we expect that process or the risk of that process to conclude?
It depends what you mean by “detailed billing.” Individual expenses billed to the City of Missoula for litigation and acquisition in the water case went through the City’s normal accounting procedures for accounts payable in the Finance Department and then on to the weekly Claims item on the City Council agenda for the Council’s approval. They are all available in the City’s electronic records system attached to the Council electronic agendas and recordings. Original invoices, which account for attorneys’ time and contain information about their activities, can certainly not be released while six legal actions related to the original litigation are still pending; no one can predict how long they will take to resolve. One of the City’s lead attorneys on the water case, Natasha Prinzing Jones, asserts that details of attorney-client interaction, such as are described on legal invoices, are perpetually private attorney-client information, much as medical information is between a doctor and a patient. Derek Brouwer of the Missoula Independent wrote a clear and accurate story on this topic published Oct. 19. https://missoulanews.bigskypress.com/missoula/carlyle-tries-again-toforce-release-of-city-legal-bills/Content?oid=5298879
5. How were the city's attorneys in the Mountain Water Condemnation suit chosen? Typically under state law large ticket services are put into a competitive bidding process, but other lawyers in town have told us that this does not appear to have been the case. Can you please explain this process and whether or not these claims by local attorneys are correct?
There is no statutory requirement to solicit bids for professional services. Through a wellconnected bond attorney with whom the City has a long working relationship under more than one mayor, Mayor Engen and the City’s management team sought an attorney with a national reputation who could bring the resources only large firms can; City leaders knew that Carlyle Infrastructure Partners could and would bring that type of resources to the case. Harry Schneider of Perkins Coie rose to the top, bringing an international reputation as a leading litigator. We then rounded out our legal team with choices made after conducting interviews with some likely local attorneys. The local attorneys are correct that there was no “competitive bidding process.”
6. We have heard that city employee Gail Verlaic is no longer working as the HR Director for the city and that she has been paid to work from home for about three years now, but that she doesn’t have a new job title. Is any of this true? Is she actually performing work for the city still? Gail Verlanic worked as Human Resources Director for the City of Missoula from 2005 to 2014, when she left HR to become the City’s Risk and Safety Program Manager. She retired from the City on Dec. 31, 2016, and has not been employed by the City since.
7. Giving the public an option to vote on city bonds seems to be a thing of the past. The last big bond sale appears to be the 2006 Open Spaces bond. Is there a reason this method of financing seems to be so rarely used?
Large general obligation bonds votes have never been a commonly used financing tool. As explained in question no. 3, those bonds, which are secured and financed by pledges to levy specific taxes, are used to finance large capital needs. These are large-scale issues that have city-wide benefit – for instance, an open space bond as opposed to a bond for a neighborhood sidewalk project. Most recently, these have been used in City-County partnerships in the 2014 Parks and Trails bond and the 2016 Missoula Public Library bond. Missoula County Public Schools is funding renovations of and additions to schools with two large bonds approved by voters in 2015.
8. Part of being a public figure means that your private life is under a microscope, and Mayor Engen has been very candid about his struggles with alcoholism, separation from his wife, etc. Can Mayor Engen please share with our audience about these experiences and how he is dealing with these challenges? The last we read about it was this article. https://www.missoulacurrent.com/government/2016/05/council-member-accuses-city-leadersimmorality-calls-peers-mayors-bobble-heads/
No, thank you.