2021 State of the Community: Missoula Renewed

April 12, 2021, City Club Missoula Video

Commissioner David Strohmaier

As some of you have heard me say before, and are probably sick of hearing me say it, whether you live in the city of Missoula or live outside the city limits, we are all residents of Missoula County—all 2,600 square miles of it. And as we think about the future, let’s never forget that the cultural landscape of our county extends back in time to the receding waters of glacial lake Missoula.

Put a pin in that.

This past year has challenged our community in really profound ways that none of us saw coming. Many of us grew up hearing stories from parents or grandparents of living through the Great Depression or World War II, of rationing and collective sacrifice. And while we’ve experienced moments of national trauma since then, many of those experiences have been from the comfort of armchairs, lacking the visceral, shared experience of the pandemic we’re still in. We’ve all lived it and breathed it.

Over the past year, we’ve borne witness to injustice and inequity in our society—even right here in Missoula County. We’ve been separated from loved ones in assisted living facilities, in some cases unable to hold their hands until the light has nearly departed from their eyes. None of us—and I repeat NONE OF US—have gone unscathed.

COVID-19 in Missoula County has brought out the best of folks; it’s also, regrettably, brought out some of the absolute worst, and there is no way to sugar coat that. As difficult as it is, we’ve got to hold both of these realities simultaneously. We absolutely must root out the callousness, indifference, bigotry and hate—personal and systemic—in our community. But let’s also recognize and celebrate the selflessness, beauty and generosity of so many. All in recognition that life is a fragile gift and that we have a choice to embrace life, and do so in a spirit of abundance rather than scarcity.

I believe the state of our community is strong, but it is oh so fragile.

Through it all, I remain optimistic, and am forever grateful to everyone in our community who’s stepped up during this past year to care for one another. It’s been an absolute joy (and, I might add, a hell of a lot of fun) working with Commissioners Slotnick and Vero, whose energy and optimism and creativity is a daily inspiration to me. To date, Missoula County has spent upwards of $20 million addressing the pandemic and associated impacts. Thanks to our Finance Department, and many others, we’ve navigated the federal requirements of the CARES Act and FEMA to cover these costs and avoid retrenchment or local taxpayers covering the financial burden.

My thanks go out to the entire Missoula County team in responding to the pandemic: the Office of Emergency Management, City-County Health Department, Partnership Health Center and first responders who have conducted contact tracing, testing and, now, vaccinations. The same could be said for all our community partners, from hospitals to non-profits to businesses to faith communities. And lest we fail to learn from this experience, we’ve worked with the University of Montana and Historical Museum at Fort Missoula and others to launch the Missoula County COVID-19 Documentation Project so that future generations understand our response to the pandemic.

Our 11 independently elected county officials, and their departments, have really pushed the envelope of creativity during this past year, from our Missoula County Attorney Office’s pretrial diversion program to our Missoula County Treasurer’s Office iSAM and Map Missoula electronic tools. Our IT staff supported remote work for upwards of a thousand users. And the list goes on. We even pulled off a major federal election during these unprecedented circumstances.

Faced with the reality that traditional shelters couldn’t operate at full capacity, we’re proud to have partnered with the United Way and Hope Rescue Mission to stand up the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, a success story that many thought was impossible. Housing remains an acute challenge for our community, which is why we’ve hired a housing coordinator and initiated the process to develop a housing plan for the county.

Our planning and grants staff have been doing double duty, pivoting from their pre-COVID work plan to spin up an emergency rental assistance program, relief fund, and small business job retention fund.

And then there’s the Sx͏ʷtpqyen Neighborhoods Master Plan and BUILD grant implementation, updating our zoning code, launching a Food Policy Advisory Board, planning for the future of our parks and open space, and figuring out how to coexist with fire on the landscape. Climate change has not abated, and neither has our commitment to mitigate and adapt to this global crisis through our 100% clean electricity goal, the Climate Ready Missoula Plan, and solarizing county facilities.

Because we didn’t just hit the pause button during the pandemic, we’re now ready to hit the accelerator as we round this bend. I can’t wait to see you at our rejuvenated fairgrounds this summer, the groundbreaking of the Rocky Mountain Exploration Center (where rumor has it, Jerry Marks will begin his second 50-year tour of duty with Missoula County!), and the opening of our flagship public library.

Finally, we believe that at least part of the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel might very well be . . . you guessed it . . . a passenger train! Last year, Missoula County spearheaded an effort to establish the first passenger rail authority in state history, which came to fruition in November when 12 counties, from Sanders to Wibaux, executed a joint resolution to establish the Authority. The bigger story, I believe, extends beyond rail: namely, it’s still possible to bridge the urban-rural, east-west, red-blue, and ideological divides that have split this state and nation apart.

Back to that thing I put a pin in earlier. Justice, equity, diversity and inclusion must be at the center of everything we do in this county, yet it’s an aspiration we have yet to fully realize. We’ve created a new Community Justice Department, and I’m excited to say that earlier this year we hired our first diversity coordinator, Jamar Galbreath. With the help of our county auditor, we’re reevaluating how even bone-dry procurement policies can be enlivened to address equity.

Before I wrap up, I’d like to share a short video (below), focusing on our strong collaboration with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and remembering that this place has a rich and deep heritage that carries into the future.

In the spirit of gratitude and thanks, I want to recognize the many years of service that Ellen Leahy has provided to the City-County Health Department, and welcome D’Shane Barnett as he assumes the health director role shortly.

The challenge before us, is what have learned? What will we remember? And how can we become more resilient and caring as a community?

Missoula County recognizes the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, remembering that this place has a rich and deep heritage that carries into the future.

Commissioner Dave Strohmaier presented at the April 11, 2021, State of the Community: Missoula Renewed, with City of Missoula Mayor John Engen and University of Montana President Seth Bodnar. Each year, City Club Missoula hosts the State of the Community, an up-close look at three major institutions that shape our community: the city, the county and the University of Montana. The full video is available on the City Club of Missoula’s website.

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