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.

Public, media invited to attend virtual meeting of Criminal Justice Coordinating Council

The next meeting of the Missoula County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council will take place from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Friday, June 26, via Microsoft Teams. Members of the public and media are invited to attend the meeting, which will feature discussion on efforts to reform the criminal justice system locally.

Agenda items include discussing proposals for future criminal justice reforms in Missoula County, such as increased funding for crisis intervention, implicit bias, LGBTQ+ and trauma-informed trainings, as well as a jail diversion initiative specific to Native American populations, who are disproportionately represented in the Missoula County Detention Facility. Currently, 17 % of MCDF inmates identify as Native American, compared with 4 % of county residents who identify as Native American.

District Court Judge Leslie Halligan, who serves as the current chair of the CJCC, will lead the meeting. There will be opportunity for public comment and questions from the news media at the end.

The media and public can join the meeting via Teams using the information below:

Join Microsoft Teams Meeting
+1 406-272-4824
Conference ID: 596 772 250#

MCAT also plans to stream the meeting live on its website and Facebook page

The CJCC is a multi-agency collaboration that uses a data-driven approach to reforming the local criminal justice system, which includes reducing the jail population, addressing ethnic and racial disparities, and more effectively responding to mental health issues. It was established and is primarily funded through a grant from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, a nationwide effort to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails. Three county staff members in the CJCC Department directly support the council’s work.

“In light of renewed calls for criminal justice reform from the national to local levels, we want to make sure the public knows what the CJCC in Missoula County is doing and how they can get involved,” said Kristen Jordan, CJCC manager. “Our team is doing great work, though we know there’s still much to do to ensure an equitable justice system for all in Missoula County.”

Current CJCC initiatives include:

  • Applying for a $125,000 grant through the state Department of Health and Human Services to fund a mobile crisis team that would respond to a call for someone in mental health crisis instead of law enforcement or other first responders. This team would include two mental health professionals to assess and assist the person in crisis and a peer-support specialist and/or case manager to ensure the person receives follow-up treatment and mental health services. Using a mobile crisis team would reduce jail bookings and emergency room visits, decrease arrests and prosecutions, and allow for more appropriate use of law enforcement and first responder time. If awarded, the county and City of Missoula will provide matching funding, which, coupled with grant funds received earlier this year, would total $380,000 to get a mobile crisis team up and running. Research shows that every dollar spent on mobile crisis saves $5 to $7 elsewhere in the criminal justice system.
  • An effort to analyze the result of releasing pre-trial inmates accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes from Missoula County Detention Facility amid COVID-19 concerns. MCDF reduced their population by approximately 50% by releasing inmates who met these criteria in March and have not rebooked the majority of them as they await trial. CJCC staff are collecting data to determine the rate at which they were re-arrested and/or missed court dates. While releasing inmates accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes was already taking place at a slower, more methodical pace before the pandemic, the data gathered from releasing a large number of inmates at once will prove invaluable to the CJCC as it develops and implements more programs to address the root causes of crime, including poverty, addiction and mental health issues.  

  • Implementation of Calibrate, a prosecution-led pre-trial diversion program housed in the County Attorney’s Office. This voluntary program offers some criminal defendants an opportunity to have their criminal charges dismissed if they successfully complete a treatment plan specific to their needs. Treatment plans may include financial counseling, inpatient treatment for addictions and restitution. 

  • Increased use of the Public Safety Assessment, a risk assessment tool that uses nine factors to predict whether an individual will commit a new crime or fail to return to a scheduled court hearing if released before trial.  

  • Development of the Jail Data Dashboard, which is available online. It depicts several key data points that are essential in understanding the jail population and helps to identify, analyze, solve and manage systems issues in the criminal justice process, such as reducing racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system.

To learn more about the CJCC, view the Jail Data Dashboard, and review meeting minutes and agendas, head to missoula.co/cjcc.

Missoula County elected officials: We must work together to ensure justice for all

Protest
Protesters gather at the Missoula County Courthouse in May.

On May 25, 2020, our nation witnessed the horror of George Floyd dying with a police officer’s knee pressed into his neck. Mothers everywhere, from Minneapolis to Maine to Missoula, winced hearing a dying man call to his own.

This act is but a snapshot of hundreds of years of oppression. Much of the United States was built on stolen land with stolen labor, and these centuries old crimes still echo today, across generations. As your Missoula County elected officials, we share a vision of a just future, yet do not pretend to know the exact path forward.  Though some of us have faced discrimination, we have all benefited from structural racism. Much of our knowledge of racial injustice comes from shared stories rather than personal experiences.  Nonetheless, we are committed to amplifying and including the voices of those who do understand.

We embrace the right to peacefully protest, encourage our citizens to exercise their right to peacefully assemble and speak their minds, without violence. Across the country people from every walk of life are saying — loud and clear — ENOUGH.  We hear you and agree with you.

We are willing to listen and to take further action.  Some of the steps we’ve made to examine and address inequality in our local criminal justice system include rolling out our comprehensive jail diversion plan, launching our prosecution-led diversion program and reforming our pre-trial system.  We’ve invited the National Native Children’s Trauma Center to inform criminal justice employees of the devastating impacts of historical trauma of Native people and teach us the practice of cultural humility. As a county government, we’re proud of our relationship with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. We are committed to understanding why American Indians are disproportionately represented in detention and what additional steps we can take to address historical injustices.

We have people working exclusively on equity issues in our public health department and at the Partnership Health Center clinic. And we understand all our work must be considered through an equity lens. Even so, inequality persists and we must address it now.

There is a lot of work to be done and, as your elected officials, we shoulder the burden of change. This work must be perpetual, so we are making a sustained commitment. We expect that you will hold us to account and appreciate your involvement. Please join us in this effort.

Over the course of the past two weeks, in the midst of violence and devastation, we also saw unlikely alliances and witnessed acts of unprecedented solidarity and kindness: the organizer of a conservative rally invited a Black Lives Matter activist to the stage; law enforcement professionals denounced the actions of racist officers; a sheriff and his deputies responding to a call for security, instead joined the march with protesters; a stalwart row of blue uniforms in Texas took a knee in honor of those who’ve been slain and those who marched.

Robert Kennedy said each time a person “stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

Let’s keep working together — starting with ripple —  so that the tragic events of last month mark the end of the long night of injustice for people of color in our community and signal a new day, one that honors the legacy of George Floyd, and all who came before him, by implementing — not just promising — justice for all.

Signed,

Alex Beal, Missoula County Justice of the Peace
Dave Strohmaier, Missoula County Commissioner
David Wall, Missoula County Auditor
Erin Lipkind, Missoula County Superintendent of Schools
Josh Slotnick, Missoula County Commissioner
Juanita Vero, Missoula County Commissioner
Kirsten Pabst, Missoula County Attorney
Landee Holloway, Missoula County Justice of the Peace
Shirley Faust, Missoula County Clerk of Court
TJ McDermott, Missoula County Sheriff
Tyler Gernant, Missoula County Clerk and Treasurer

*A version of this post was also submitted to several area news organizations