Affordable housing and nonprofit assistance are top priorities in the Missoula community

Missoula County should prioritize increasing affordable housing for all and assisting nonprofits that provide public services, according to the results of a recent survey on community needs.

The Community and Planning Services Grants and Community Programs Division conducted an annual community needs assessment to gauge the community’s interests and funding priorities. The needs assessment was the first step in determining how to effectively use potential state and federal funds and to ensure that community development projects reflect community needs.

The following priorities were established through an online survey and virtual meeting.

  • The top two actions Missoula County should prioritize overall:
    • Increase housing that is affordable for all
    • Assist nonprofits that provide public services
  • Top two priorities for housing initiatives:
    • Support initiatives to maintain and/or increase affordable housing
    • Down payment assistance for low- and moderate-income homebuyers
  • Top two homelessness priorities:
    • Mental health and substance abuse services
    • Increased supply of permanent supportive housing
  • Top two strategies for increased economic development:
    • Increase the supply of housing that is affordable to the workforce
    • Job training and opportunities for at-risk populations (e.g. prisoner, re-entry, homeless, recovery, etc.)
  • Top two public infrastructure priorities:
    • Broadband internet coverage and access
    • Bike lanes and trails and streets and roads
  • Top two community facility needs:
    • Mental health center
    • Emergency housing facility (youth, domestic violence survivors, homeless individual/families)
  • Top two public services priorities:
    • Mental health services
    • Homelessness services including prevention
  • Top two priorities for COVID-19-related assistance:
    • Emergency rental assistance payment for low-to moderate-income households impacted by COVID-19
    • Financial assistance for small business owners

Every year, Missoula County conducts a community needs assessment to prepare for the release of federal funding opportunities, namely Home Investment Partnerships, Community Development Block Grants and Brownfield Assessment Grants. This assessment addresses the public participation requirement of the federal funding application process and is used to identify funding priorities in the county.

Missoula County competes with other Montana counties and communities for CDBG funding, which is awarded to the State of Montana from the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development. Missoula County has secured CDBG funding to partially support the construction costs of the Poverello Center and the new YWCA Family Housing Center on Third Street, soon to be known as the Meadowlark. State CDBG funding also partially funded the updated wastewater system in East Missoula and an updated wastewater system for the resident-owned Buena Vista trailer court near the Missoula International Airport. Furthermore, the county has a CDBG housing repair grant for eligible households to support the costs of repairs needed due to health or safety concerns.

An artist rendering of the new YWCA Family Housing Center on Third Street, soon to be known as the Meadowlark.

The Missoula County Brownfields Assessment Program is just getting off the ground. This grant from the Environmental Protection Agency provides funding for phase I and phase II environmental assessments on properties where its expansion, redevelopment or reuse is complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant. The grant also supports cleanup and redevelopment planning. Nearly every community in Montana has brownfield sites. Left untouched, a brownfield can pose insurmountable environmental, legal and public and private investment challenges. The grant is earmarked for properties outside of city limits; however, all potential properties would be considered.

This year’s assessment included an online survey distributed to Missoula County residents from June 3 – 17 through email, social media and ads in the Missoulian and Seeley Swan Pathfinder. The survey included questions about Missoula County’s housing, public services, public infrastructure, economic development and COVID-19 response and recovery. Staff received 207 responses. In addition to the online survey, Grants and Community Program staff conducted a virtual meeting seeking additional community feedback on June 25.  Representatives of Missoula service agencies and 13 community members attended the meeting.

Staff presented information on the assessment to the Missoula County commissioners on July 7, and it will be compiled into a final report that includes the survey results, meeting minutes and public comment. This report is a required component of federal and state grant applications, which are due in September; interested parties can contact the Grants and Community Planning staff to learn more.

To view the presentation, go to www.missoulacounty.us/grants and click on Community Needs Assessment.  

Health officer issues order for more gradual reopening in Missoula County

Health Department

Missoula Health Officer Ellen Leahy issued an order Friday providing additional guidance and restrictions to accompany the statewide Reopening the Big Sky plan Gov. Steve Bullock outlined earlier this week.

The order enhances sections of the governor’s plan and provides for a more gradual reopening process. It intends to protect public health and Missoula’s healthcare hub, our communities, and our essential businesses, services and workers. It will also allow local public health to develop guidance for businesses during this transition.

The key components of the order include:

  • Events are limited to 25 people. During Phase One, which begins Monday, April 27, events and gatherings such as, but not limited to, fairs, festivals, markets (including farmers’ markets), concerts, sporting events, races and private parties outside the home must be limited to 25 people during Phase One. A 6-foot physical distance between participants must be maintained. If this distancing cannot be maintained, then these gathers are limited to 10 people, per the governor’s directive.
  • Salons, spas, body art, grooming and similar services must remain closed. Hair and nail salons, barbershops, spas, tattoo parlors, massage parlors and other businesses and individuals providing grooming, beauty, body art, piercing, massage and similar services will remain closed until Phase Two. Massage therapy affiliated with licensed physical therapy and chiropractor services is exempt from this requirement.
  • Retail businesses must take additional measures to reopen. Retail business, formerly deemed “non-essential” and required to be closed during the stay-at-home directive, may reopen to only curbside pick-up and delivery on Monday, April 27. These businesses may resume in-store services on Friday, May 1, if all the requirements below are met. The following requirements also apply to essential retail businesses that continued operations under the statewide stay-at-home directive:
    • At any given time, the maximum number of customers must be 50% of usual business capacity
    • Measures to protect customers and staff waiting in line at checkout counters, such as visible markers or signs denoting six-foot separation or temporary barriers, are in place
    • Staff have received training on practicing good hygiene, maintaining physical distancing, recognizing symptoms of COVID-19, and not reporting to work or remaining at work if experiencing symptoms;
    • Businesses must develop and implement an individualized plan addressing the requirements in the governor’s re-opening directive and this order. Businesses must keep the completed plan on-site and make it available to the Missoula City-County Health Department upon request.
  • Eating and drinking establishments must adhere to requirements to reopen. Restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos may reopen on Monday, May 4, as long as all the guidelines outlined in the governor’s directive can be met. The main difference here between the state plan and the Missoula County approach is that the guidelines outlined in the governor’s plan will be requirements in Missoula County. If establishments cannot meet these requirements, they must remain closed during Phase One. In addition, these establishments also must provide for at least 6 feet of separation between diners and groups of diners, including those sitting in booths.

These measures will remain in effect until the governor moves the state to Phase Two re-opening (the date for which has not been determined) or until this order is revoked or revised based on review of epidemiological data, testing availability and public health and medical capacity to control the spread of the virus and treat COVID-19.

To read the full order and access additional guidance, head to missoula.co/cvirus. If you have questions about how the local orders affect your business or organization, you can call 406-258-4755.

“We know that there are cases in our county that have not been identified and are concerned that we could see a spike in cases if we loosen restrictions too quickly and without a plan,” said Cindy Farr, incident commander with the Missoula City-County Health Department’s COVID-19 response. “We need to take a measured approach to reopening in Missoula for the sake of the public’s health.”

Farr also added that the measures, while delaying some openings, will help minimize the chances of future closures or workforce impacts if cases increase.

“What we don’t want is for businesses to invest in getting back on track, only to be affected again,” Farr said. “Taking the time, providing guidance and moving methodically is important.”

The health department recognizes that loosening any restriction is likely to contribute to case numbers but knows restrictions long-term are not practical. Working with businesses and the community to create a “new normal” in the era of the pandemic is essential.

Since Wednesday, the health department received more than 200 comments from community members, business owners and essential workers. About 90% of the comments asked for additional local measures, particularly to slow the reopening of the businesses that are covered in the order.

Under the governor’s directive, public schools in Montana will have the option to reopen starting Thursday, May 7. The decision to reopen will be up to individual school districts, including Missoula County Public Schools and other districts in the county. The Board of Trustees for MCPS, the largest district in the county, plans to make that decision on Friday, May 1.

Along with these measures, the department encourages community members to practice personal and community protective measures. Monitoring for symptoms, staying home when sick, washing hands, social distancing, and staying home as much as possible are still prevention measures that matter. Additionally, the Health Board’s recommendation for wearing cloth face coverings in public spaces where social distancing is hard may decrease community spread.

“Keeping cases down at this point comes down to behavior and contact tracing,” Farr said. “We can do the contact tracing and provide guidance to our community, but we still need the community’s help. It is going to take all of us supporting each other to keep COVID-19 down. We’ve weathered this storm as well as we have because of community thinking, and that’s what’s going to continue to matter.”

Missoula health officials close bars, limit food service to prevent COVID-19 spread

social distancing

The Missoula City-County health officer issued an order closing bars and limiting restaurant service starting at 8 a.m. Tuesday, March 17, through 8 a.m. Tuesday, March 24.

The order comes on the heels of CDC guidance to restrict events to fewer than 50 people, and the growing evidence supporting social distancing, or the avoidance of large groups of people and close contact. Other jurisdictions in Montana are doing the same, including Butte, as well as elected officials across the country.

“I know that this is a big ask with Saint Patty’s day tomorrow, but this is not a typical time,” said Health Officer Ellen Leahy. “This is a global pandemic of a new virus that spreads easily from person-to-person, and we need everyone’s help in curbing it.”

While the order prohibits the operation of bars and dine-in food service, the order does allow for limited operation via drive-thru, take out and delivery service. It also doesn’t include food services that are a sole source of food for a population such as nursing homes, UM dining or hospitals. Food services that operate in a limited capacity need to follow the food service regulations and additional guidance from the health department.

With two presumptive positive COVID-19 tests in Missoula County over the weekend and other cases across the state, the order is timely, especially in light of Gov. Steve Bullock ordering K-12 schools to close statewide.

“We appreciate the cooperation of the businesses affected,” Leahy said. “One of the great things about Missoula is the community-minded approach of the business community. Working together, we can minimize the impact on Missoula’s health and the economy.”

For the latest updates on COVID-19 in Missoula County, visit missoula.co/cvirus or call 406-258-INFO from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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

Food truck CAF
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:

CAF list.png

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.

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

seat-belt-4227630_1920
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.

Schmidty HeadShot (002)
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.

Buckle Up Montana.png