Ana Cortez, Helena city manager (copy)

City Manager Ana Cortez, pictured here in a file photo, responded Wednesday to questions put forth by city commissioners regarding street maintenance and storm water assessments.

Helena city officials held their final public discussion Wednesday of the first draft of the city budget for fiscal 2020 and 2021.

City Manager Ana Cortez responded Wednesday to questions put forth by city commissioners regarding street maintenance and storm water assessments. Cortez will present the full preliminary budget at Monday’s commission meeting, which will represent the first time Helena is setting its finances in order for the next two fiscal years instead of one.

Staff previously discussed increases to park-related assessments -- specifically 37 cents to Open Lands assessments, $1.50 to Urban Forestry, $4.16 to streets, $3.01 to water and $1.72 to waste water -- at an April 29 meeting. Cortez mentioned at the time that those numbers are not final and likely wouldn’t increase, but could fall in Monday’s preliminary budget.

The recent discussion largely centered on a potential increase of the city’s street maintenance assessment. The numbers Cortez distributed Wednesday propose an increase of that assessment to $17.18 annually for residential lots, $6.87 for mobile homes and $30 for commercial lots smaller than 6,000 square feet for the next two fiscal years.

Compared to fiscal 2019, those rates represent annual increases of $2.85, $1.14 and $10.98 per lot or parcel, respectively. 

Meanwhile, commercial lots over 6,000 square feet could see that assessment increase to one-half of 1 cent per square foot for the first million square feet – about 58% higher than in fiscal 2019. Taken together, these increases translate to nearly $6.9 million in new revenue in each of the next two fiscal years.

The city’s storm water assessment, which funds improvement of municipal storm water drainage, could remain stagnant for residences before increasing in fiscal 2021 along with a 53-cent increase to a residence’s minimum charge, currently $3.32. A proposed 30% increase for commercial properties – which currently pay $2.16 per 1,000 square feet on the assessment – would create just over $2 million in new revenue for fiscal 2020.

As for city salaries, Cortez said Wednesday that the preliminary budget will not include raises, as that number will be subject to negotiations requested by the Helena Police Protective Association.

Those negotiations could have implications across Helena. Cortez said one of the policy directions provided to her by the city commission was to apply the police union’s negotiated salary increase, by percentage, to all city employees except for directors and city managers.

“I will come to you with some other options,” Cortez said, “but it will not be an automatic increase.”

Cortez also said Monday’s preliminary budget will be balanced through cuts, though the exact amount and affected departments remain to be seen. Concerned residents submitted a stream of messages throughout April asking the city not to cut plastic recycling services, though Cortez responded by saying recycling would not be affected.

Talk of a recycling cutback likely stemmed from a memo presented at an April 11 meeting of the Helena Citizens Conservation Board. According to a letter the board later sent to the commission, that memo gave as its only options eliminating the plastics recycling program or keeping it as-is in the new fiscal year. The board wrote that the memo did not “adequately convey” the program’s benefits.

Whatever numbers Monday brings, they still will not be final. City Administrative Services Director Glenn Jorgenson said discussion of the final budget will take place at the city’s administrative meeting on June 5, allowing three and a half weeks to spare before the city’s fiscal 2020 begins July 1.

The Helena City Commission will come to order at 6 p.m. Monday in the commission chambers of the City/County Building in Helena, 316 N. Park Ave.

Independent Record reporter Tyler Manning contributed to this story.

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