Census 2020: Another representative, billions of dollars at stake for Montana

State Capitol, Helena

Now that 2020 has arrived, the decennial Census is right around the corner. There’s a lot at stake for Montana: In addition to $3 billion in federal funding, the state has a legitimate chance of regaining a congressional representative. A complete count of all residents will ensure Montana receives adequate federal funding and representation.

The Census is required by the U.S. Constitution, which mandates a headcount every 10 years of everyone residing in the 50 states and territories. This includes people of all ages, races, ethnic groups, and citizens and non-citizens. The first Census was conducted in 1790, and one has been conducted every 10 years since.

2020 will be the first year residents can respond online, as well as by mail or phone. In March, Montana households will start receiving postcards inviting them to respond to the Census. The U.S. Census Bureau will send several reminders before Census takers start visiting non-responsive households in May.

As the lead agency heading up the Complete Count Committee for our area, Missoula County is charged with making sure everyone is counted in 2020, including those populations deemed “hard to count,” which include:

  • Children under 5
  • Highly mobile people
  • Racial and ethnic minorities
  • Non-English speakers
  • Low-income people
  • People experiencing homelessness
  • Undocumented immigrants
  • People who distrust the government
  • LGBTQ people
  • People with mental or physical disabilities
  • People who do not live in traditional housing

Missoula County has partnered with dozens of local organizations and agencies who work directly with these populations to help get the word out about how crucial it is to participate in the Census.

Census 10 for 10

All Montanans can rest assured that the information they provide to the Census will remain secure and confidential. Census workers take an oath to keep your information private, and disclosing it is a federal offense with serious penalties, including a prison sentence of up to five years and a $250,000 fine.

It’s also important to remember that the official Census will never ask you to pay to participate or provide personal information like Social Security numbers. Unfortunately, scammers will likely take advantage of the publicity around the Census, so be on the lookout for imitations.

View a sample Census questionnaire online

To ensure every Montanan is counted in the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau is looking to hire thousands of temporary staffers in the state. Jobs offer flexible schedules, pay a starting wage of $19.50/hour in Missoula County and require no related experience. You must be 18 years old, a U.S. citizen and complete a background check to be hired. Learn more and apply online.

Be a Census taker

Missoula-area zoning update aims to reflect community values

Zoning map

Zoning determines what kind of development can take place in an area, and values-based zoning helps create a community that’s a great place for everyone to live, work and play. That’s why Missoula County Community and Planning Services has embarked on a year-long mission to update the zoning code for the Missoula urban area outside the city limits.

Over the past several months, county staff met with residents and stakeholders − including community and neighborhood council members, developers, real estate agents, architects and designers − to gather input about the current zoning code and how it can improve. The resulting zoning audit is available now and includes six core recommendations:

1. Align zoning with community values

In some areas, residents see the value of being able to run a business, like cabinet making or an art studio, from their home, and they appreciate a “live-make” zoning option. Other communities prefer a more defined separation between residential and commercial. To gauge opinions on this and other community values ahead of the zoning update, Missoula County completed the Missoula Area Mapping Project to find out how people would like to see those values reflected in future growth and development. This results of the MAMP, which was also incorporated into the Missoula County Growth Policy, will heavily inform the zoning update.

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Commissioner Juanita Vero looks at a map of the areas in Missoula County where the zoning code will be updated.

2. Correct zoning misalignment between city and county

As more people move to the area, it’s only a matter of time before emerging neighborhoods need to connect to city infrastructure, such as water and sewer lines, to keep up with the demands of a growing population. Better alignment with the city zoning code will decrease roadblocks along the way.

3. Incentivize density, where appropriate

With home prices continuing to rise in the Missoula area, it’s more important than ever that zoning allow for increased density and more housing choices, especially where existing infrastructure can accommodate it, so all Missoulians can access homes they can afford.

4. Overhaul design standards to promote quality development

Creating a place where everyone can thrive means encouraging development of complete communities that emphasize pedestrian infrastructure, blend of housing types, agricultural uses, parks and trails, and sustainable development, all while keeping emerging trends, such as energy efficiency and 5G infrastructure, in mind.

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Updated design standards can promote quality development.

5. Update code reorganization and formatting

When a zoning code is clear and easy to read, it makes the process to follow it much smoother. The names of zoning districts in the updated code will accurately reflect intent, character and use, and definitions will be consolidated, updated or, when outdated, eliminated entirely. Graphics and tables will be used in place of text, when possible.

6. Create unified code and enhance enforcement tools

A zoning code is only as good as the enforcement of it. The zoning audit calls for establishing a streamlined enforcement process that encourages collaboration among county departments, as well as the possibility of adding a dedicated enforcement officer who can focus on the front-end portion of the process.

Want to take a deeper dive into the world of zoning? Check out the full zoning audit online.

Want to share your perspective? You can submit your comments online or by calling 406-258-4657. The process to update the zoning code is expected to last through June.

Want to better understand zoning and how it can affect you? Watch “An Introduction to Zoning” on the project website.

Missoula County awards $800,000 in grants through Community Assistance Fund

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The Missoula Food Bank and Community Center provides many services, including the mobile meal bus, beyond the walls of its facility on Wyoming Street.

During the school year and even into the summer, the Missoula Food Bank and Community Center provides more than 40,000 weekend meals to kiddos experiencing chronic hunger throughout Missoula, Lolo, Frenchtown, Bonner and Clinton. On Fridays, a Kids Empower Pack containing two entrees, snacks, fresh fruit and milk is tucked into the backpacks of school children who otherwise may go hungry over the weekend.

The program is made possible, in part, through a grant from the Missoula County Community Assistance Fund. The CAF is an individual county fund that supports people in our communities who face barriers to the basic needs of food, shelter, medical services and emergency transportation. It accounts for around 2 percent of the taxes you pay to the county (or about $14 on a $300,000 house), and it helps provide a continuum of services to some of our most vulnerable populations.

For fiscal year 2020, Missoula County awarded $805,996 in CAF grants, providing critical financial assistance to the following organizations:

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This year, Partnership Health Center received a $100,000 CAF grant, which will assist in opening a satellite clinic at the Missoula Food Bank. PHC currently serves about 16,000 patients annually throughout Missoula and Mineral counties. In some parts of the city and county, PHC serves up to 95% of people living at low income. In the neighborhood around the Missoula Food Bank, PHC’s data show only 32% of eligible patients are being seen. PHC Director Laurie Francis says the clinic should be open in the spring of 2020, which will help them reach many of the food bank’s 26,000 clients who may not have easy access to medical care.

“We are so excited about this project,” Francis says. “It brings together partnerships and support from Missoula County, as well as the city, PHC and the food bank, to better serve that part of the community.  The amount of good we can do together is astronomic!”

The process to secure a CAF grant is rigorous and involved, requiring a thick stack of documents from local organizations that apply.  A review committee comprised of four community members and one county commissioner independently score the applications. The committee then interviews each organization to learn more about its project to determine which requests will be the best use of taxpayer dollars. County grants staff forward the committee’s recommendations to the county commissioners, who vote on whether to approve them.

CAF chart

“Managing the Community Assistance Fund on behalf of Missoula County is one of the highlights of my position,” says Nancy Rittel, a grants administrator for the county. “Seeing how such a broad array of nonprofit organizations are able to provide vital, basic human needs to babies, children, teenage youth, the elderly and disabled because of the county’s assistance is extremely gratifying.”

As Amy Allison Thompson, executive director of the Poverello Center, notes, “Without CAF funds, we would be hard-pressed to offer the level of assistance to people experiencing homelessness, both on-site at our shelter and throughout the Missoula Valley through the efforts of our Homeless Outreach Team.”

Rittel expresses the county’s appreciation for the important role the citizens review committee plays in awarding CAF grants.

“We always owe a big thank you to the members of the citizens review committee for the hours of unpaid service they spend reading hundreds of pages of application materials and taking time from their lives to participate in agency interviews,” Rittel says. “Ultimately, their dedication leads to funding recommendations for the commissioners that are based on vetted, informed decision-making.”

If your organization provides food, shelter, medical services or emergency transportation and is interested in applying for fiscal year 2021 funding, email Nancy Rittel at nrittel@missoulacounty.us. The application deadline is typically the first week of April. More information on county-funded opportunities is online at http://missoula.co/countyfundops.

Solar array purchase moves Missoula County closer to clean energy goals

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Missoula County will move a step closer to achieving its renewable energy goals by purchasing a portion of the clean electricity generated by the Missoula Electric Cooperation’s newest community solar array in Bonner.

By subscribing to 37 of the 189 panels that make up the project, the county will own 20% of the electricity generated by the array for 25 years. The cost to purchase the output of the 37 panels is about $24,000.

Commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Juanita Vero, along with staff and officials from the county and City of Missoula, joined MEC General Manager Mark Hayden on an appropriately sunny day last week for a tour of the Solarshare K3 Garden at the KettleHouse Brewery.

“Missoula County is committed to 100% clean electricity by 2030, and that means maximizing our investments in renewable energy today,” Strohmaier says. “This is a great opportunity to purchase clean, affordable energy, and we encourage county residents who are MEC members to join us and buy into the project if they’re able.”

Hayden says there are about 30 panels left to purchase in the Solarshare K3 Garden. MEC members interested in purchasing a panel can find more details online.

The purchase helps the county make progress on two major goals aimed at combatting climate change: In March, the county adopted a goal of carbon neutrality in county government operations by 2035, and in April, commissioners approved a joint resolution with the City of Missoula, which also subscribes to output from K3 Garden panels, to achieve 100% clean electricity for the Missoula urban area by 2030.

With the K3 Garden purchase, about 63% percent of county operations are now powered by clean energy. Missoula County also owns the output of 10 panels from MEC’s Solarshare 1 project in Lolo and 49 panels from its Solarshare 2 project in Frenchtown.

“Our goals are ambitious but necessary, given the great risks that climate change poses to Missoula County,” says Diana Maneta, the county’s energy conservation and sustainability coordinator. “In addition to participating in Solarshare K3, we’re looking at opportunities to use energy more efficiently, incorporate solar into our buildings and support the development of larger-scale clean energy projects.”

The county, in partnership with Climate Smart Missoula and the city, is also leading the Climate Ready Missoula planning process to prepare for the local impacts of climate change.

Missoula County has also received recognition for its sustainability efforts several times in the past year, including:

  • Silver designation from SolSmart, a program funded by the U.S. Department of Energy that recognizes local governments for making it faster, easier and more affordable for property owners to go solar. Missoula County was deemed the first SolSmart county in Montana when it earned a Bronze designation in 2017.
  • A 2019 U.S. Green Building Council Mountain West Leadership Award for the Missoula County Courthouse, which achieved LEED Silver status following a years-long renovation.
  • The Emerging Conservationist Award from the Missoula Conservation Roundtable, which honored Maneta for her role in establishing goals and regulations related to renewable energy and sustainability.

To learn even more about Missoula County’s sustainability and conservation efforts, head to http://missoula.co/sustainability. There, you’ll find information on going solar, recycling and composting, building climate resiliency and more.

New Missoula County Election Center is now open

Missoula County Election Center
The new Missoula County Election Center is located at 140 N. Russell St. in Missoula.

Need to register to vote in Missoula County? Update your address? Sign up for an absentee ballot?

If you’ve needed any of these services over the past 10 years, it’s possible you showed up at the county courthouse on Broadway, only to find that you actually needed to head to the Election Office’s temporary location at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. That’s because a few months before each election, Elections Office staff routinely moved from their permanent location at the courthouse and set up shop at the more spacious fairgrounds so they could accommodate increased demand for voter services.

Hopefully, most people were still able to trek across town and take care of their registration. But what might be a minor inconvenience for some may be a major setback for others, especially those running on tight schedules or who rely on public transportation to get where they need to go.

And while the fairgrounds provided more space and parking, operations still had to be spread over multiple buildings. And with renovations slated to continue at the fairgrounds for several more years, this solution was becoming increasingly unsustainable. (Not to mention the thousands of dollars it cost each time to move).

Fortunately, Missoula County voters now have a year-round, one-stop shop for all their voting needs: the county’s new Election Center, located at 140 N. Russell St.

Elections staff have moved into the facility and are providing voter and election services from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The centrally located facility will eventually provide about 200 parking spaces, and it’s accessible via Mountain Line’s Route 2 BOLT bus, which offers service every 15 minutes, and from the Milwaukee Trail, located a block south.

“We’re excited about this new, permanent location that will allow us to better serve voters,” says Dayna Causby, the county’s elections administrator. “We’re looking forward to working out of the new facility and providing the customer support that ensures everyone who’s eligible to vote can cast their ballot.”

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An election staff member helps a voter at the new Election Center.

The 14,500-square-foot center, which includes the main office space and a warehouse, will also host trainings for emergency management, law enforcement and other county staff. The county will remodel the buildings to best accommodate the various uses. Renovations are projected to cost around $500,000 and slated to be complete ahead of the June 2020 primary election.

The county acquired the property from the Western Montana Mental Health Center in October for $2.78 million. In addition to renovation costs, the financing package includes the purchase of about $255,000 in elections equipment, including an additional ballot processing machine and updated elections software, bringing the total to $3.5 million.

So next time you need an election-related service, be sure to visit the friendly staff at the new Russell Street location. If you’re driving, it’s best to enter the parking lot via the entrance on Wyoming Street, just west of Prince Street.

You can contact the Elections Office by phone at 406-258-4751 or email at electioninfo@missoulacounty.us. You can also check your ward, registration status and polling place location at www.missoulavotes.com.

How do we get Missoula’s seatbelt-use rate to 100 percent?

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Photo: Pixabay

The results are in: After observing more than 5,000 vehicles in Missoula, officials with the Missoula City-County Health Department report that they saw about 92% of occupants wearing their seatbelts.

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Steve Schmidt

Steve Schmidt, senior community health specialist and Buckle Up Montana coalition coordinator for Missoula County, spent a week observing vehicles at 11 different locations in Missoula at the end of September. He says that of the 5,262 vehicles he saw, he observed 4,844 with occupants wearing their seatbelts.

This is up significantly from the 2018 survey, when only about 76% of Missoulians were observed wearing seatbelts. In 2017, the rate was 81%. This year also saw a considerable increase in seatbelt use among pickup truck occupants, from about 71% in 2018 to 86% in 2019.

Though 8% of Missoulians are still not wearing seatbelts, today’s numbers stand in stark contrast to those collected in 1987, when only 34% of vehicle occupants were observed wearing seatbelts, a spike apparently so dramatic for that year that it prompted the surveyor to draw a smiley face on the report.

Seatbelt use, then and now

So why are 8% of Missoulians still not wearing their seatbelts? And why is that rate even higher for pickup truck occupants? Though it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons, Schmidt says a variety of factors could be at play.

“I’ve occasionally come across individuals who have indicated that they have known someone who died in a crash and they were wearing their seatbelt,” he says. The seatbelt doesn’t guarantee survival − it just greatly increases the chances. And when your world is being flipped upside down, I would bet on the numbers.”

Schmidt also says he’s heard that some people who drive larger vehicles, like pickups, feel safer and don’t believe they need seatbelts. That’s why public health officials have focused over the past few years on the “Buckle Up in Your Truck” campaign. He’s happy the rate among pickup occupants is increasing, but there’s still work to do.

2019 Missoula Seatbelt Use Survey

“I believe that educating young drivers will have an impact on older drivers,” Schmidt says. “When my kids had their learner’s permits, they actually ensured I was wearing my seatbelt before they moved the vehicle. It was nice to see, and it appears to be more normalized. There doesn’t seem to be a ‘coolness factor’ in play. It’s just what we do.”

The education on seatbelt use also need to evolve, Schmidt says. The “scare tactics” of the past doesn’t seem to be as effective, and he’d like to approach seatbelt use from a different angle.

“For me, it’s about control,” he says. “We all like to be in control, and the best way to stay in control of a vehicle is to remain behind the wheel of that vehicle. A seat belt will help keep you behind the wheel, where you have the ability to control the vehicle.”

Education is just one component of increasing usage. Proactive legislation could also increase the rate. Montana is currently one of 16 states that does not have a primary seatbelt law, meaning law enforcement cannot stop someone solely for not wearing a seatbelt. They can only cite someone for not wearing a seatbelt if they initially pulled them over on suspicion of another violation.

“States with primary seatbelt laws have a higher percentage of people who wear seatbelts,” Schmidt says. “I’d love to see and work for a primary seatbelt law here in Montana.”

You can learn more about the work the Buckle Up Coalition is doing to increase seatbelt usage by visiting their website and Facebook page.

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Relationship Violence Services prevention manager selected for national Culture of Health Leaders program

Kelly McGuire headshot
Kelly McGuire

Kelly McGuire, prevention manager at Relationship Violence Services (RVS), has been selected to participate in one of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s leadership programs. These programs connect leaders across the country, from every profession, sector, and field, to learn from and work with one another to create more just and thriving communities.

Specifically, Kelly will participate in the foundation’s Culture of Health Leaders program. Designed for people from all fields — from technology and business to architecture and urban planning — Culture of Health Leaders fosters cross-sector collaboration and supports leaders in their continued growth and development as agents of change for equity and health. Together, they learn new ways of thinking and leading, expanding their perspectives and accelerating their impact.

Kelly has worked in the field of domestic and sexual violence services for 12 years, nine of them at RVS. As a member of the Culture of Health Leaders’ newest cohort, Kelly will receive intensive leadership coaching and will network with other leaders across the nation in the process of learning how to use the program’s framework to bring a health equity perspective to her work to prevent domestic and sexual violence in Missoula County.

“I’m excited about networking with other people who are working to improve their communities, and I hope to bring new strategies for improving the safety and well-being of our community members back to Missoula County,” Kelly says. “In particular, this program has a strong focus on diversity, equity and inclusion, a topic that is important to me and to our department, and I look forward to gaining more skills to center those values in our work.”

When she started at RVS nine years ago, Kelly was the only prevention staffer for the department. Now, she manages a staff of three prevention educators and one part-time contractor, who provide healthy relationships and consent education across Missoula and Mineral counties. Their programming includes providing education for teachers and students in schools, focused on topics including how to know if a relationship is healthy or unhealthy, red flags for abusive behavior, boundaries, consent and respectful dating behavior. The prevention division also offers community workshops to prevent sexual violence for alcohol-serving establishments. More recently, they have been working with musicians, comedians and other local entertainers to make Missoula’s nightlife scene safer and more welcoming for everyone.

You can find out more about Relationship Violence Services programs and initiatives, and how you can bring them to your community, at http://missoula.co/rvs.