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 to host virtual summit on restoring passenger rail to southern Montana

Missoula County will host a virtual Montana Passenger Rail Summit on Thursday, Sept. 17, to educate and advocate for the restoration of passenger rail service to southern Montana.

The summit is open to elected officials, government staff, business and tourism professionals, and anyone interested in restoring passenger rail service to southern Montana and increasing rail connectivity across the region.

Organizers are still finalizing the agenda, but confirmed speakers include:

  • Elaine Clegg, city council president, Boise, Idaho
  • Robert Eaton, director, State Supported Service and Government Affairs, Amtrak
  • Jordan Hess, councilman, City of Missoula
  • Jim Mathews, president and CEO, Rail Passengers Association
  • Roger Millar, secretary of transportation, Washington State Department of Transportation
  • Andrea Olsen, representative, Montana House
  • Beth Osborne, director, Transportation for America
  • John-Robert Smith, chairman, Transportation for America
  • John Spain, vice chairman, Southern Rail Commission
  • Dave Strohmaier, commissioner, Missoula County

“Restoring passenger rail service to southern Montana would be transformative for the state — economically, socially and environmentally,” Strohmaier said. “As we recover from the effects of COVID-19, it’s more critical than ever to make smart transportation investments that further community resiliency. Passenger rail is key to realizing that vision, and there is no reason why Montana shouldn’t be a leader in making this a reality.”

Strohmaier, with the support of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners and others, has spearheaded the current renewed effort to restore passenger rail service to the southern part of the state, similar to the North Coast Hiawatha Amtrak route that served Montana until 1979. In addition to providing long-distance transportation within the state, passenger rail restoration would provide for greater connectivity regionally, with possible connections to Seattle, Chicago, Denver and Salt Lake City.

State statute allows for counties to create a regional rail authority as a framework for administering and funding passenger rail service. Earlier this month, Missoula County commissioners finalized a resolution to create the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, and commissioners from Dawson, Park and Sanders counties have expressed their intent to join.

“Bringing passenger rail back to southern Montana would be a game changer for our state, but it is no small task,” Hess said. “We need broad support and coordination from cities and towns across Montana. The summit will be an opportunity to add to the growing chorus of voices supporting passenger rail.”

Pre-registration for the virtual summit is now available at https://montanapassengerrailsummit.org/. Participants who pre-register will receive an email update when summit details are confirmed and full registration is available. The summit was originally scheduled to take place in-person in April but was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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.

Missoula-area zoning update aims to reflect community values

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Zoning determines what kind of development can take place in an area, and values-based zoning helps create a community that’s a great place for everyone to live, work and play. That’s why Missoula County Community and Planning Services has embarked on a year-long mission to update the zoning code for the Missoula urban area outside the city limits.

Over the past several months, county staff met with residents and stakeholders − including community and neighborhood council members, developers, real estate agents, architects and designers − to gather input about the current zoning code and how it can improve. The resulting zoning audit is available now and includes six core recommendations:

1. Align zoning with community values

In some areas, residents see the value of being able to run a business, like cabinet making or an art studio, from their home, and they appreciate a “live-make” zoning option. Other communities prefer a more defined separation between residential and commercial. To gauge opinions on this and other community values ahead of the zoning update, Missoula County completed the Missoula Area Mapping Project to find out how people would like to see those values reflected in future growth and development. This results of the MAMP, which was also incorporated into the Missoula County Growth Policy, will heavily inform the zoning update.

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Commissioner Juanita Vero looks at a map of the areas in Missoula County where the zoning code will be updated.

2. Correct zoning misalignment between city and county

As more people move to the area, it’s only a matter of time before emerging neighborhoods need to connect to city infrastructure, such as water and sewer lines, to keep up with the demands of a growing population. Better alignment with the city zoning code will decrease roadblocks along the way.

3. Incentivize density, where appropriate

With home prices continuing to rise in the Missoula area, it’s more important than ever that zoning allow for increased density and more housing choices, especially where existing infrastructure can accommodate it, so all Missoulians can access homes they can afford.

4. Overhaul design standards to promote quality development

Creating a place where everyone can thrive means encouraging development of complete communities that emphasize pedestrian infrastructure, blend of housing types, agricultural uses, parks and trails, and sustainable development, all while keeping emerging trends, such as energy efficiency and 5G infrastructure, in mind.

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Updated design standards can promote quality development.

5. Update code reorganization and formatting

When a zoning code is clear and easy to read, it makes the process to follow it much smoother. The names of zoning districts in the updated code will accurately reflect intent, character and use, and definitions will be consolidated, updated or, when outdated, eliminated entirely. Graphics and tables will be used in place of text, when possible.

6. Create unified code and enhance enforcement tools

A zoning code is only as good as the enforcement of it. The zoning audit calls for establishing a streamlined enforcement process that encourages collaboration among county departments, as well as the possibility of adding a dedicated enforcement officer who can focus on the front-end portion of the process.

Want to take a deeper dive into the world of zoning? Check out the full zoning audit online.

Want to share your perspective? You can submit your comments online or by calling 406-258-4657. The process to update the zoning code is expected to last through June.

Want to better understand zoning and how it can affect you? Watch “An Introduction to Zoning” on the project website.

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.