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.

Missoula County to Award COVID-19 Job Retention Grants to 27 Local Businesses

Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday approved distribution of $624,738 from the COVID-19 Small Business Job Retention Fund to 27 local businesses impacted by the pandemic to help them retain jobs for low- to moderate-income employees.  

Of the grants awarded, 58% went to businesses in the food and drink industry, for a total distribution of $365,000. Twelve percent went to retail businesses, 10% to professional services, 10% to preschool/childcare, 6% to transportation and the remaining 4% to businesses in the lodging industry.  

The 27 recipients experienced an average 45% decline in revenue since the beginning of the pandemic and had to lay off 158 employees. Without the grant funding, it is projected there would be another 166 layoffs in the first three months of 2021. 

“Demand for the funds was overwhelming,” said Melissa Gordon, program manager for Grants and Community Programs. “While the county isn’t able to provide assistance to every business in need, I am hopeful the program will provide the support necessary for grant recipients to retain employment opportunities and stay afloat until the new federal assistance becomes available.”   

In total, the county received 126 applications requesting $2.875 million in funding. The application portal opened at 9 a.m. Dec. 10, and it only took a few hours for the amount of funding requested to exceed the amount available. Applications were considered on a first-come, first-served basis. 

The grants are supported through the Community Development Block Grant Economic Development Revolving Loan Fund, which are federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds intended to stimulate economic development by providing loans and/or grants to create or retain jobs for low- and moderate-income people. Low- to moderate-income is defined as individuals or families whose household income is up to 80% of the median income for the area when adjusted for family size.  

With the sunsetting of current state and federal COVID-19 assistance programs and the slow winter season just around the corner, commissioners allocated a portion of the available CDBG funds to provide working capital grants to help retain jobs and reduce the significant fiscal impact COVID-19 has had on small businesses and the Missoula workforce. 

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.  

Missoula County Attorney Appointed to Board of National District Attorneys Association

Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst

The National District Attorneys Association has named Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst to its board of directors as a vice president and member of its executive committee.

“Pabst was chosen because of her leadership and long-standing commitment to criminal justice reforms and prosecutor well-being initiatives,” said NDAA President Nancy Parr. “We welcome her expertise and look forward to working with her.”

“It’s an honor to be chosen to work with such dedicated leaders,” Pabst said. “Criminal justice is at a crossroads on so many levels — racial inequality, gender inequality, mass incarceration – and it is exciting to be in a position to effect positive policy changes, not just at the local and state level, but nationally.”

Pabst has served as county attorney since 2015. She started her career as a prosecutor 25 years ago and has worked with the NDAA as a trial instructor for the past 20 years.

Formed in 1950, NDAA is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country. With more than 5,000 members representing more than two-thirds of the state and local prosecutors’ offices, NDAA is recognized as the leading source of national expertise on the prosecution function and is a valuable resource for the media, academia, government and community leaders. NDAA’s mission is to provide state and local prosecutors with the knowledge, skills and support they need to ensure that justice is done and that public safety rights are protected.

Pabst will also chair NDAA’s new Prosecutor Wellbeing Task Force, designed to develop and disseminate resources, training and peer-to-peer exchanges for prosecutors around the country to promote their health and well-being.

Missoula County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council lands grant for mobile crisis team

The Missoula County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council has received a $125,000 grant from the state Department of Health and Human Services to fund a mobile crisis team to respond to calls for people in mental health crisis instead of law enforcement or other first responders.

The grant will help fund a 10-month pilot project, which will create a team of two mental health professionals with basic medical training to assess and assist a person in crisis, and a peer-support specialist and/or case manager to ensure the person receives follow-up treatment and mental health services. Missoula County and the City of Missoula will provide matching funding, which, coupled with other grant funds received earlier this year, totals $380,000 to get a mobile crisis team up and running. Data from the pilot project will be used to inform future funding decisions.

“Having a mobile crisis team in Missoula County has been a need for a long time,” said Kristen Jordan, CJCC manager. “There is tremendous support for the implementation of this mobile crisis team from our community, our first responders and law enforcement and our Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.”

Mobile crisis teams reduce jail bookings and emergency room visits, decrease arrests and prosecutions, and allow for more appropriate use of law enforcement and first responder time. Research shows that every dollar spent on mobile crisis saves $5 to $7 elsewhere in the mental health and criminal justice systems.

Having a mobile crisis response team will allow people to call 9-1-1 and have a mental health team dispatched to the scene, independent of law enforcement or first responder presence. The county will contract with a mental health provider to deliver mobile crisis services through an RFP process expected to start next week. The goal is to have the mobile crisis team active by September.