Commissioner Juanita Vero started her new job in July after Commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Josh Slotnick appointed her to fill the remainder of Nicole Rowley’s term, which runs through the end of 2020. Vero, a fourth-generation partner of the E Bar L Ranch in Greenough, plans to run for the open seat in the November 2020 election.
“Juan,” as she’s known around the office, took a break from her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her experience so far and what she hopes to accomplish in the future.
Why did you want to serve as a commissioner?
I don’t think many folks say, “I want to be a county commissioner.” I’m from a rural part of the county and there’s not always a lot of trust in government. In fact, I can think of numerous times I’ve told people, “Man, there’s no way I’d want to be a county commissioner … they just get chaffed coming and going, trying to serve unsatisfied citizens with limited resources. No one is ever pleased with you.”
The reason I changed my attitude is that I was asked to consider the position by some folks I respect. I had a contemplative birthday weekend in Recluse, Wyoming, and took stock of the years I’d spent serving on various nonprofit boards and committees focused on natural resource, community-based conservation. I have a deep love for Missoula County, its complexities and contradictions, and realized I had the capacity to have a positive impact so I shouldn’t squander it. My high school motto is Not utsibi ministretur sed ut ministret or “Not to be served but to serve.”
What does a typical day look like for you so far?
We take an impressive number of back to back meetings, both standing and scheduled, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., with some evening obligations, such as community events or public meetings. Generally, the day is a whirlwind of staff reports or presentations from various county departments or organizations from across the county, field tours, and, of course, public hearings. I joke that one could get a concussion merely sitting through a day of meetings — one minute we’re discussing paving rollers and pavement recipes, the next it’s early detection of autism for children under 5, a building in this department has boiler or HVAC issues, this riparian corridor should be protected, that building needs a new roof, and oh, there’s illegal camping going on in a right-of-way and what are we to do about folks who are working but forced to live in their cars, and this developer needs a variance on fire code because of new building design, someone vandalized Fort Missoula Historical Museum, this staff member is retiring or promoted and it will take two new hires to do the job, Seeley Lake needs a sewer, and, yes, we need to figure out a budget for 118,000 people living across 2,618 square miles. I usually find myself back in the office in the evening when it’s quiet and I have a chance to process what happened that day and catch up on email.
What do you think are the most pressing issues facing Missoula County?
This isn’t very sexy, but it’s our taxing structure — that we rely so heavily on property taxes to fund all the important and necessary services that make Missoula County a great place to live is problematic. It’s also a blow that revenue from other sources has steadily declined, whether it’s due to state and federal cuts to social services, decreases in PILT money (payment in lieu of taxes we receive for government-owned property in the county) or insufficient reimbursement for housing state inmates at our county jail.
Another challenge is balancing growth while preserving our collective senses of place. Change is hard, and everyone in Missoula County − urban, rural and in the “doughnut” − identify with the ground, the landscape and the people around them in their corner of the county. Adding 20,000 people over the next couple of decades and seeing new things pop up in our old haunts can feel disorienting. County leadership can help set the tone in how we navigate that and how people might feel about it at the end of the day.
What are some of your goals for your first year in office?
I don’t consider myself a politician, and I find it rather presumptuous to roll into a new position, a new culture and start making grand gestures. I’m reminded of a wilderness first responder maxim, “before doing anything, survey the scene.” I had an instructor who recommended taking the time to eat a Snickers bar — and observe what was going on — before administering aid. My goal for the coming year is to eat that Snickers bar, to listen, learn and absorb as much as possible and ultimately create the space or conditions for staff to feel empowered to do their best work and for citizens to feel heard and able to create the community in which they want to live. I’m honored to be part of this commission. We won’t always agree, but I’m very excited to be working alongside Commissioners Strohmaier and Slotnick.
What has surprised you most since starting your new job?
I’ve never worked indoors in an air-conditioned office before. It takes a bit of getting used to. In all seriousness, I wasn’t expecting to fall in love every day with the people (citizens and staff) of Missoula County. Even those who are upset with us impress me with how much they care and are trying to do what’s right for their families and their community. We are incredibly fortunate to live here, and if any place can grapple with sticky issues, Missoula County can.
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.
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.
Later 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.
This 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.
In 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.
Together 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.
Cryptocurrency 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.
Also 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
According 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.
So 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.
This 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.
With temperatures expected to climb into the mid-50s next week (😲), the heavy snow that blanketed Missoula County throughout February will likely start to melt, and melt fast. You may not live in a floodplain, but your home could still be susceptible to flooding caused by rapid snow melt. And even if your home doesn’t flood, snow melt can lead to other problems, such as water damage and mold.
With spring* weather right around the corner, this weekend is a great time to prepare your property. The Missoula County Office of Emergency Management has compiled a few tips to help homeowners prevent problems caused by rapid snow melt:
Shovel snow away from your home, keeping it at least 5 feet away from your foundation.
Clear snow and ice from drainage areas around your home’s foundation.
If your home is on a grade or hill, shovel snow so that it doesn’t flow toward your home when it melts.
Clear snow from your roof to prevent excessive buildup, which can lead to ice damage that allows melting snow to seep through your roof. Clearing the snow also prevents a significant amount of water from flowing through your gutters during a thaw.
Clear snow and ice from gutter downspouts. Add downspout extensions to channel melting snow away from your home.
Keep drainage areas around your home clear of snow and ice buildup. This ensures melting snow will drain properly and helps prevent backups.
Inspect basement walls for cracks. This includes caulking around windows, too. Make repairs as necessary to prevent water from entering your basement.
Remove snow from the window wells around your house.
Test your basement sump pump now, before all the snow melts.
Never ignore water in your basement. Investigate and repair the source as soon as possible. If you have water in your basement or a flood from melting snow, dry and clean the area as quickly as possible.
And, while we’re talking about preparedness … have you signed up for Smart 911 yet? The Office of Emergency Management encourages all Missoula County residents to register for this free service, which will deliver timely, location-specific alerts to help keep you and your family safe during an emergency. Head to www.smart911.com or download the app!