Missoula Fire Capt. Ben Webb, left, and firefighter/paramedic Chad Maney coil a hose at the downtown station Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2023. The Missoula City Council Monday voted to remove a $7 million levy from the November ballot that would have paid for new firefighters because of concerns about property tax increases. Credit: Katie Fairbanks / MTFP

Citing uncertainty and apprehension around upcoming property tax bills from the state, the Missoula City Council on Monday voted to remove the fire and emergency services levy from the November ballot. 

The 34-mill levy approved by the council in early August would have raised $7 million in the first year. The money would have paid for 20 new firefighters to better respond to Missoula’s growing population and provided a stable funding source for the mobile support team, which serves residents in mental health crises.  

“We are disappointed in having to do this,” Missoula Fire Chief Gordy Hughes said Tuesday. “But I think the best route to the levy passing is to reevaluate, ensure we’re looking at all aspects of the ask.” 

Mayor Jordan Hess requested that the council remove the levy because ballots will be mailed on Oct. 18, before residents receive property tax bills from the state later that month. 

“People will be voting on this measure without knowing what their own tax bills will be,” Hess said during Monday’s meeting. “That feels unfair and disingenuous to ask the voters to make a decision on a levy they don’t have a clear-eyed vision as to what the impacts on their house, their budget and their financial situation will be.” 

The decision to cancel the levy has nothing to do with the department’s needs and “everything” to do with the “absolutely untenable” property tax situation created by the Legislature, Hess said. 

“That feels unfair and disingenuous to ask the voters to make a decision on a levy they don’t have a clear-eyed vision as to what the impacts on their house, their budget and their financial situation will be.”

Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess

On average, Montana residential property values grew faster than commercial ones this reappraisal cycle, shifting the state’s tax burden to homeowners from commercial and agricultural properties, according to the Montana Department of Revenue. 

State property reappraisal notices sent in June generally estimated a significant jump in the valuations used to calculate property taxes. While it’s unlikely increases to property tax bills will be as high, the reappraisals have driven concern and discussion statewide. 

Other council members echoed Hess’ sentiments regarding the need for a larger discussion about Montana’s property tax system. 

Ward 5 Council Member Stacie Anderson said the levy proposal felt “set up for failure” when the Department of Revenue reappraisal notices went out. 

“When Missoulians get their bills this October, there will be heartache, there’s no way around it,” she said. “But I’m hoping the majority of people say, ‘It wasn’t as bad as what I was expecting based on what I was told the potential could have been.’” 

Anderson said most residents support the fire department and will likely be open to the levy once this “period of uncertainty” passes.

Ward 3 Council Member Daniel Carlino was the sole vote to keep the measure on the ballot, voicing concerns about the lack of new firefighters and stable funding for the mobile support team. 


“Allowing voters to make the decision is a great path,” he said. “I’d be happy to put it on the ballot this time, and no matter what, figure out a way to get some more firefighters and expand the service.”

Hess encouraged the council to take action on the levy or other possible fire department funding in early 2024. 

Chief Hughes said Tuesday the initial timing of levy approval required by state law unfortunately fell before the council voted on the city’s budget and tax increase. 

“If we knew ahead of that that the city was going to increase tax significantly, we would have held off going to council for the resolution of the levy,” he said. 

The fire department is “in a good place” to provide service to Missoulians but is falling short of national average response times, Hughes said. Population growth and increasing call volume will continue to emphasize the need for more firefighters, he said.  

Hughes said he wants to set up community forums to get more input from the public as officials explore multiple options. It’s unclear if the department will request a similar levy or a different funding source, like a special taxing district, he said. 

“We’re just looking to make this the most appealing and take advantage of the best time to get passage of a levy or whatever that turns out to be down the road,” Hughes said. 

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Katie Fairbanks is a freelance journalist based in Missoula. Katie grew up in Livingston and graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism. After working as a newspaper reporter in North Dakota, Katie worked as a producer for NBC Montana's KECI station, followed by five years as a health and local government reporter in Longview, Wash.