Missoula County commissioners seek public comment on proposed budget

Following their preliminary budget hearing on Aug. 13, the Missoula County commissioners are encouraging members of the public to review and provide feedback on the proposed budget for fiscal year 2021.  

Missoula County’s preliminary budget for FY21 includes $170.2 million in overall revenue, which is based on certified taxable values the Montana Department of Revenue released earlier this month, as well as available cash savings from previous years.    

The budget calls for overall expenditures of $168.6 million, with much of that going toward sustaining current services and operations, which includes increases in operational expenses and negotiated increases in employee wages.   

Missoula County budgets an average of 2.5% to cover wage increases for the county’s 850 employees, about 85% of whom are covered by collective bargaining agreements. The county bargains those agreements in good faith and was able to honor those agreements this year. The county also continues to work toward paying all permanent employees a minimum, livable wage of $15 an hour. Wages for elected officials and contract employees were largely frozen due to current economic uncertainty.  

Approximately $1.1 million in the preliminary budget would fund new requests to enhance services and operations, such as funding new programs and adding new staff, equipment and technology.  

To minimize the impact on taxpayers, departments must fund all one-time requests with cash savings from the prior fiscal year. A dozen new, ongoing requests would require new property tax dollars. 

Read the detailed list of budget requests online or view the slideshow above.

If adopted as-is, the preliminary budget would mean an estimated property tax increase of $17.34 on a $350,000 home, or $1.45 a month.  

“What we choose to fund is a direct reflection of our values,” said commission Chair Josh Slotnick. “We believe this budget responds to the current needs of our county and also makes smart investments in our future. We encourage the public to take the time to review the budget and let us know your thoughts.” 

The county also anticipates approximately $3.4 million in COVID-19-related expenses in FY21. The county expects these expenses, which include operation of the county testing clinic, emergency operations center, non-congregate shelter and call center, to be reimbursable through CARES Act funding.  

Since Missoula County voters approved a 2-cent per gallon gas tax in June, the preliminary budget does not include any property tax increases for the county road fund. The county will be better able to predict revenue from the gas tax after it goes into effect in October.   

The public is encouraged to review budget documents, which are posted online at http://missoula.co/budgets. In addition to commenting during public meetings, residents can comment by leaving the commissioners a voicemail at 406-258-4877, emailing bcc@missoulacounty.us or mailing comments to the Commissioners’ Office, 200 W. Broadway St. Missoula, MT 59802.    

Commissioners will hold a virtual public hearing on the final budget at 2 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 3. They will consider any additional public comment before voting to adopt the final budget at an administrative public meeting later that month.  

Apply to serve on the new Missoula Food Policy Advisory Board

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Are you interested in increasing local food security, promoting sustainable agriculture, building regional self-reliance and climate resiliency, and connecting food access programs to local, nutritious food? Then apply to serve on the Missoula Food Policy Advisory Board!

Missoula County, the City of Missoula and the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition recently partnered to establish the board, which will consist of seven voting members: three appointed by the county commissioners, two appointed by the City Council, one appointed by Missoula Mayor John Engen, and one appointed by CFAC. There also will be two alternate members who serve on the board and vote in the absence of a regular member.

“The creation of the Food Policy Advisory Board came as the result of fantastic intergovernmental cooperation and community participation,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “I look forward to integrating expertly designed food and farming policy recommendations into our deliberations at the Board of County Commissioners.”

The appointing bodies may consider candidates who represent or specialize in these suggested areas:

  • local agricultural producers
  • retail food outlet (specifically a retail grocery and/or local restaurant)
  • educational institutions
  • emergency food providers
  • a nongovernmental organization or researcher working in the area of health, nutrition or medical care
  • a nongovernmental organization or researcher working in the area of local food systems and/or sustainable agriculture
  • a Missoula city/county established farmer’s market
  • a food-related, non-farm business
  • the youth community and other related fields of expertise required to accomplish the purpose of the advisory board

“I look forward to the Food Policy Advisory Board supporting existing community efforts and creating systemic change, on the city and county level,” said City Council Member Heidi West, who sponsored the initiative for the city. “This board has the potential to lead to improvements for all components of the local food and agriculture network while also resulting in policy to further existing goals around health equity, climate change resiliency and zero-waste goals.”

Meetings will be held from 3:30 to 5 p.m. on the third Monday of every month at the Missoula County Administration Building. Those interested in serving on the Food Policy Advisory Board and who represent one of the areas of expertise can apply for both city and county appointments online at or at the Commissioners’ Office at 199 W. Pine St. The deadline for all applications is Saturday, March 28.

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.

Get Smoke Ready ahead of wildfire season

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This is the first in a short series of posts by Sarah Coefield, Missoula City-County Health Department air quality specialist, about becoming a smoke-ready community. Stay tuned as we prepare for wildfire season!

Oh, hey! It’s suddenly summer! Have you bought a new HEPA filter, yet?

That was one long, cold slog through spring, but summer has finally arrived, and we can get started on our summer to-do list: get outside and grill delicious foods, spend time on the river, hike in the mountains, enjoy the extra hours of daylight, and make a plan for creating cleaner air spaces in homes and businesses before wildfire season hits!

That’s right, folks. There’s lightning in the hills and we’ve got smoke on the brain.  It’s time to become Smoke Ready. (It’s capitalized so you know it’s important.)

Wildfires in our region typically start in mid-July or August, and the clock’s ticking for getting ahead of summer wildfire smoke. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be sending out some helpful information for preparing for this year’s wildfire season.  Now, the good news is we’re not supposed to have an extreme wildfire season in western Montana this year.  It’s supposed to be an average fire year and a potentially cooler and wetter summer than we typically see. (And yeah, that feels right.  I, for one, greatly resented turning my heat on in June.) Keep in mind, though, that 2017 was *supposed* to be an average fire year.  Also, know who’s predicted to have a bad fire year? Washington.  And who’s sent us some of our worst out-of-state smoke? Also, Washington.  And who’s already had a large grass fire year? Again, Washington. The point being, even if we avoid local fires (and that’s a big if), there will likely be smoke this summer.  I mean, Canada’s been on fire for over a month now. Overachievers, the lot of them.

Wildfire smoke is nasty business.  It’s composed of a veritable stew of chemicals and fine particulate matter.  Most of the growing field of wildfire smoke health research has focused on the particulate matter in smoke, and really, there’s no good news there.  The fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke is super tiny (typically less than 1 micron in diameter), and it can bypass all your natural defenses to get deep into your lungs and even enter your bloodstream where it sets off an inflammatory response.  The pollutant is particularly harmful to infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with heart or lung disease. It’s also just bad for everyone, particularly if you’re stuck in it for days or weeks at a time.  Folks who are sensitive to the smoke are most likely to experience respiratory effects such as worsening asthma attacks or difficulty breathing.  There’s also an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke for those with heart conditions.  The increased frequency of long duration wildfire smoke events is a relatively new phenomenon, so we don’t yet know what the long-term ramifications will be for children exposed to smoke. We do know from a study in California that young children (ages 0-4) had a greater spike in asthma-related emergency department visits during a 2007 wildfire than any other age group.

Also, have you noticed how everyone just starts to feel crummy when smoke drags on?  When you’re in wildfire smoke for a prolonged period your body goes on the offensive.  An inflammatory response is really your body trying to get rid of an invader.  The strategy works pretty well when the invader is biological (such as a virus), but it’s less effective against particulate matter. Exposure to fine particulate matter essentially sets in motion a prolonged immunological response.* You feel crummy when you have a cold because your body is fighting off the invader. It’s basically the same thing with smoke (albeit with less mucus). Unfortunately, despite your body’s efforts, the most effective way to really get better is to get out of the smoke.

Happily, we know how to get out of the smoke! Or, more accurately, get the smoke out of our breathing space.  Unfortunately, just going inside isn’t necessarily going to cut it.  You know how the super tiny fine particulate matter can get into your bloodstream? It can get into buildings, too. The best way to make sure your indoor air is cleaner than the outdoor air is to actively filter out the fine particulate matter.  Now, the good news is the technology to filter fine particulate matter exists.  This isn’t an unknown realm or impossible task. It takes some planning and an investment in good filters, but most people will be able to create cleaner indoor air when wildfire smoke rolls into town.

I’ll take you into the weeds of creating cleaner indoor air spaces over the next couple weeks. We will go over picking out and using portable air cleaners (PACs) with true HEPA filters, the dos and don’ts of using your central air system to clean the air, some practical considerations for dealing with heat, air conditioners and wildfire smoke, and what we know about creating cleaner indoor air in large buildings.

(If you caught this series last summer, some of the material will seem awfully familiar.  Also, I’m assuming you dutifully went out and secured PACs to create a cleaner air room in your home or bought a better HVAC filter for your central air system last year.  If so, don’t forget to stock up on new filters for the 2019 wildfire season!)

Also, if you don’t want to wait for my next update, head on over to www.montanawildfiresmoke.org for some great tips on preparing for wildfire season!

*With thanks to Sarah Henderson of the British Columbia Center for Disease Control for that explanation of why we all feel miserable in the smoke.  Sarah Henderson is one of my wildfire smoke heroes.  And yes, that’s a thing. There are some super rad, passionate scientists working to advance wildfire smoke science. Also, it’s nice to know that Canada sends us excellent science along with all the wildfire smoke.

State of the Community 2019: Commission chair highlights key initiatives in Missoula County

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Nicole “Cola” Rowley, the current chair of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners, updated local stakeholders on four key county initiatives at the April 15 State of the Community. Rowley covered a lot of ground in her 10-minute speech, providing details on the county’s updated land use map, sustainability goals, fairground renovation plans and criminal justice initiatives.

Read Commissioner Rowley’s full speech, and let us know your thoughts by commenting below or emailing communications@missoulacounty.us.

2019 State of the Community

Commissioner Nicole “Cola” Rowley, chair

Board of County Commissioners

Rowley headshot

Thank you all for coming today, and thank you to City Club for putting this on. To keep things interesting, I’m going to put slides up as I go. The County does incredibly diverse and interesting work, but since I can’t talk about it all in 10 minutes, I thought I’d update you on three things that focus on shared values and that I’m passionate about: land use planning for the growth we’re experiencing, redevelopment of the fairgrounds and improving outcomes in our justice system.

Land use mapLater this week, my fellow commissioners and I will hold a hearing on the Missoula Area Mapping Project. It’s a community-driven land use planning project led by Community and Planning Services that identified the values of our communities and developed a vision for how we can get there. For more than a year, we held over a dozen public workshops, three rounds of soliciting public comment through an interactive online map, and dozens of one-on-one stakeholder and public conversations. This yielded a plan based on community input that represents new ideas on how to guide growth:

  • We streamlined the designations, paring down from about 60 to the 15 you see here;
  • We added the county’s first agricultural land use designation to preserve our intact agricultural areas;
  • We worked closely with the East Missoula and West Riverside communities to develop a live/make land use designation. This supports small-scale entrepreneurship and manufacturing while protecting the residential character of the neighborhoods.

The plan uses infrastructure to proactively guide growth, increase housing supply and develop walkable neighborhoods. The plan has the support of diverse groups, including both the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition and the Missoula Organization of Realtors, as well as the affected East Missoula community council, where traditional planning methods have fallen flat. Through real conversations and creativity, our staff −  thank you, Andrew Hagemaier and Christine Dascenzo − achieved this broad support and came up with a plan that honors our shared values of preserving working landscapes and wilderness areas while driving opportunities like entrepreneurship and affordable housing.

Hand in hand with land use planning and growth come conversations of sustainability and resiliency around climate change. As the 2017 wildfires and resulting smoke and 2018 floods demonstrated, we’re already experiencing the impacts of climate change, and these impacts are only projected to accelerate in the coming years.

Fire and floodThis is a picture I took in my subdivision while I was on pre-evacuation notice in the 2017 Lolo fire. It was like watching an air show as the multiple planes and helicopters flew over our front porch and doused the approaching wall of flames. It was a phenomenal sight, and my little girls, who were 2 and 5 at the time, were both fascinated and terrified by it. What’s truly terrifying though is the world they will live in if we drag our feet on addressing climate change. Thanks to our Energy Conservation and Sustainability Coordinator, Diana Maneta, the county is engaged in stakeholder-driven Climate Resiliency Planning with the City and Climate Smart Missoula, which will deepen our understanding of the local impacts of climate change that we’re clearly experiencing and develop strategies to address them.

 

Greenhouse gas inventoryIn addition to adapting to impacts, we are doing our part to reduce our contribution to climate change. Missoula County operations emit 7,583 metric tons of CO2 equivalent every year. We have established a goal of carbon neutrality in county government operations by 2035, with an interim goal of 30 percent reduction by 2025. This would eliminate 80,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent, which is like taking 17,000 cars off the road for a year.

 

Climate targetsTogether with the city, we have established a goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2030 for the Missoula urban area. The hard part is putting that in action. A couple of weeks ago, we passed interim regulations requiring new and expanding cryptocurrency mining companies to use 100 percent new renewable energy.

 

CryptocurrencyCryptocurrency mining in Missoula County is currently estimated to use as much electricity as one-third of all households in the city and county, and that simply doesn’t align with our community’s goal of mitigating climate change.

 

FairAlso on the sustainability front, under the direction of our amazing Director Emily Brock, the Western Montana Fair has joined Missoula’s ZERO by FIFTY initiative to reduce 90 percent of the material sent to the landfill by 2050. Last year the fair saw 80,000 visitors and produced nearly 60 tons of trash. Moving forward, we’ll have stations set up around the fair to recycle and compost everything possible and will require all vendors to convert to compostable and recyclable materials.

For the past century, the Fairgrounds have embodied the diversity found in Missoula County itself; connecting people by bridging our rural heritage and urban vibrancy and honoring education, human connection, history and recreation.

 

 

Insectarium
Missoula County Weed District and Extension Office and privately funded Missoula Insectarium

 

We currently host over 500 events on the Fairgrounds every year, and we’re looking to grow the venue into a community destination as we break ground this year on what will be the home of the Missoula County Weed District and Extension Office and privately funded Missoula Insectarium. This partnership is a vital part of a stewardship and revitalization project that will bring community life to Midtown Missoula.

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Renovations underway on the Commercial and Culinary buildings

Another thing to look for on the grounds this year is the historic remodel of the Commercial and Culinary buildings, which are on track for a grand re-opening at this summer’s fair.

Historic plaza

Historic plaza and concessions row

For the 2020 fair, you can expect a relocated and new concessions row, historic plaza, trails, updated exhibit space and, with any luck, new perimeter fencing that feels less like a correctional facility and more like a welcome home.

Rodeo arena
Rodeo arena

Longer term, a new Rodeo Arena will be built with seating for 3,000 spectators and improved staging areas for the animals. A new 80,000 square foot Livestock Center will be located adjacent to the Learning Center so youth enrolled in agricultural programming can easily move from classroom space to the field. This facility will be an enormous asset to livestock programming and will increase agricultural education opportunities for youth living in the urban core.

Ice rink
Glacier Ice Rink

Glacier Ice Rink will eventually move toward the YMCA and will have three sheets of ice and four dedicated curling lanes. The current rink operates up to 18 hours a day with nearly 4,000 people a week during peak season. The new rink will create opportunities for year-round ice, increase available ice time, and increase participation across all programs.

Viewscape
Viewscape from Malfunction Junction

It will also look a lot better. Moving it away from Malfunction Junction will improve the viewscape into the open space and newly renovated historic buildings on the grounds.

New layout
Updated fairgrounds layout

The new layout of the fairgrounds will feature 19.1 acres of green space, nearly a mile of commuter trails and an all-abilities playground, serving as a rural oasis in the middle of Missoula, actualizing a decades-long planning process involving hundreds of community members that calls on us to be stewards of this property, our heritage and of community life.

PartnersThis last project I’ll talk about honors our collective values of equity, collaboration, social justice and public safety. Last year these stakeholders and others worked together to form a Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, a holistic collaborative governance structure to integrate Missoula’s many criminal justice projects, services and initiatives.

Prison population

Montana prison

America overincarcerates people – we have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the incarcerated population. And Montana is worse than the national average.

Drug offenses

What’s driving it? Well, it’s certainly not simple, but among other things we decided to be “tough on crime.” This slide shows incarceration for drug offenses, going up by and order of magnitude since the 80s. But it’s a general trend; incarceration for property and violent crime have also gone up, even when overall crime rates have gone down − a national trend mirrored locally.

Average population

Average stayAccording to the Jail Diversion Master Plan commissioned by Sheriff McDermott, the average daily population in the Missoula County jail increased 31.4 percent between 2007 and 2015. In addition to incarcerating more people, we incarcerate them for longer: the average length of stay in the Missoula County jail increased over 50 percent between 2007 and 2015. It took a dip in 2015, but it’s currently up at about 15 days.

Cycle of incarcerationSo we incarcerate people without addressing underlying issues, they often become criminalized by that detention, they’re released and re-offend, and they come back. There’s a lot of evidence now that, when we’re talking about non-violent offenders, the current approach doesn’t work to improve outcomes, but rather creates and perpetuates this cycle of incarceration. What is most is to hold them reasonably accountable, address the underlying issues driving their criminality, and allow them the opportunity to become productive members of society. Simply put, we need to stop trying to address public health issues in the criminal justice system.

We received a $700,000 MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge grant with the goal of safely reducing our jail population by 18 to 22 percent and maximizing the efficiency of public dollars, because we spend a lot of money on this system that doesn’t work optimally.  And so we all benefit from this effort, both financially and through increased community health and resiliency.

Timeline newThis slide lists some of the justice improvement efforts I’ve been personally involved in since taking office in 2015. There are certainly more; for example, County Attorney Kirsten Pabst has received national awards for her work in addressing secondary trauma in her team.

It’s important to keep in mind that these efforts focus on social justice and low-level crimes often driven by mental health and substance abuse issues; but our teams are dealing with multiple double homicides and truly disturbing crimes, and it takes a toll on everyone involved. Those crimes and criminals are not who we are talking about with these efforts. For these efforts addressing non-violent crimes, we also have received national recognition from, among others, the National Association of Counties and the National Conference of State Legislatures, who’s bringing legislators from around the country here this spring to see what system reform can look like in a small jurisdiction. They’re finding that the evidence-based models developed in large metropolitan areas are not effective in rural areas, and two-thirds of all counties in America qualify as rural. There’s a national conversation about finding more appropriate, scalable models, and Missoula County is at the forefront.

These are just a few of the initiatives going on at Missoula County that make me proud to be a commissioner and honored to work with an incredible team to serve all of you.