The State of the City in 2024

In Moscow, the mayor delivers a State of the City address every year. In this video, we take a look at the highlights and ask some questions.

Read the full transcript of the video below:

I think we, as citizens, need to ask the question: does it all boil down to property taxes?

The Mayor’s State of the City address is an annual event, in which the mayor tries to get everyone up to speed on the past year of city activities and his aspirations for the city’s future. In this video, I’ll be giving a summary of the address, and delving a little into some thoughts on its contents.

If I were to summarize the mayor’s address in a single phrase it would be this: “More People, More problems.”

If it weren’t clear already over the past few years, Moscow is a rapidly growing city, and growth of this sort will always result in strain on infrastructure as the city tries to keep up with it. Mayor Bettge touched on this when speaking about the city’s continued efforts this past year to find alternative sources of water beyond our aquifer, and the difficulties with local fire and EMS services being consistently short staffed. 

It’s also been a year of many upgrades, repairs, and improvements. The city has worked on a number of road projects and utility extensions, including finishing the 6th street bridge, replacing water mains, and enhancing pathway lighting across town. They also made a purchase of a new fire engine, added many more hybrid vehicles to the police fleet, and the mayor said they have plans in the works to replace the city’s current radio setup by 2025, and to build a new and significantly larger shop to service city vehicles and the like with its remaining ARPA funds.

Speaking of finances, the mayor used his so-called soapbox moment near the end of the address to talk about property taxes. Let me quote from the Moscow-Pullman Daily’s summary:   

“Bettge said the city’s annual challenge is providing its services while receiving a relatively low amount of property tax revenue. He said because properties like the schools, churches, government buildings and the University of Idaho are tax-exempt, that leaves more than a billion off the tax rolls.

‘Essentially we’re trying to run a city on half a lung of finance,’ he said.

He said the city will receive $7.3 million in property taxes for 2024. The Moscow Police Department alone costs $7.7 million to operate.”

To complicate things, a recent supreme court ruling regarding a case in Lewiston, meant that the Moscow City Council had to remove its streetlight utility fees, resulting in a 12% hole in the budget that those fees would have otherwise filled. To compensate, the Mayor said the city has been keeping its staff unfilled in 6 positions, including two that would otherwise go to police officers, and also by reducing its street management funds by 18%. 

Ultimately, the Mayor encouraged his audience to contact their state legislators about the property tax issue, as they are the only folks who directly address how such taxes are administered. He then concluded by fielding a couple questions from the audience and by announcing that though things are a little hard right now as regards finances, we as a city will get through it.

The mayor certainly has his hopes for the future of Moscow, as well as his complaints, same as the rest of us. For now, I want to look at his soapbox moment at the end of the speech. The fact that so much property in Moscow is tax exempt seems pretty stark, but it also isn’t anything new. The University alone accounts for a significant portion of that tax exempt property, both financially as well as visually when you look at the city itself. So even if it is a source of financial difficulty for the city of Moscow, it is not a recent development. So to focus on it in a state of the city address seems odd, unless there are other sources of financial difficulty the city is facing which make the present tax exempt property situation more pressing.

That brings us to the recently removed streetlight utility fees, which the mayor said was the cause of a 12% hole in the budget, and the reason why 6 positions on city staff remain vacant. What he did not mention in his Address is that the city made other efforts to replace the revenue lost from that fee. Back in December, the city council approved a 5% increase in its sanitation franchise fee in order to cover the loss, which is stated to be similar to what Lewiston did in the Council’s staff report from that December meeting. 

So, with those changes having been made, and those fee increases having been implemented, does the city still have a 12% hole in the budget? Are they still 18% short in their street management funds? Do they still lack the necessary funds to fill those 6 staff positions? And if so, why?

It could very well be that the city is prevented from routing money to those particular funds by law, or that the increase in sanitation franchise fees has not yet taken effect, or that said increases are still insufficient to meet the city’s needs. But the fact remains that this part of the story was not presented by the mayor in his address. When it comes to public finances, we ought to have all the information put out in front of us, and I hope that perhaps the Mayor or the council would be able to provide clarity on how these particular financial puzzle pieces fit together.

While this has been a summary of the State of the City Address, I encourage you to take a look at the full video on the City of Moscow’s Youtube channel. You may find something else worth asking questions about. We’ll have the link posted with this video. As always, I’m Aiden Anderson with the Moscow Minutes. We’ll see you next time.

Watch the full 2024 State of the City address here:

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