Missoula County eliminates grants department, cuts two positions

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Facing a tight budget and a running deficit in the Department of Grants and Community Programs, the Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday moved forward with plans to eliminate the department and issue layoff notifications to two employees.

The layoffs, which come in addition to the retirement of at least four grant administrators over the past year, will be effective on July 1. A small increase in mills may also be required to shore up the remaining $82,000 deficit in Fiscal Year 2017.

“We don’t like doing this, but we have an $82,000 deficit and we can’t move forward without a balanced budget,” said Commissioner Cola Rowley. “At this point, we have to give notice so people have options and know what things currently look like. We’re being forced into this position.”

Under the direction given by commissioners on Tuesday, the grants division will be placed under Community and Planning Services, while Relationship Violence Services remains an independent department under the chief operating officer.

Finally, Substance Abuse Prevention will fall under the management of the Health Department. Amid the move, the county will cut two positions from the grants division, including a grants accountant and grants support services.

“I’ve been with the county for 21 years, and I’ve been through six reorganizations and splits, and I’ve moved our office eight times,” said Bobbi Day, whose position is being eliminated. “This one is the most difficult, because I’m one of the positions that’s going to be cut.”

Day didn’t blame commissioners for ordering the transition, but rather she blamed the city of Missoula. Last summer, it pulled several large grants from the county’s Department of Grants and Community Programs and placed them under the city’s new Office on Housing and Community Development.

Back when the city took the action, those on the county side suggested the move would result in possible layoffs. That anxiety has persisted over the past six months, culminating with Tuesday’s decision to eliminate the department.

“We lost some of our mission when the city rescinded its grants from our department,” said Nancy Harte. “You’ve seen four senior staff people retire in the last year, five now with me. When you see a reduction of five grants administrators and you lose some support staff from that as well, you just don’t have the capacity to do as much.”

That lack of capacity remains a concern with those who handle grants for the public’s benefit. Those efforts range from rapid rehousing with the YWCA to environmental grants, trail work, infrastructure, and drug and alcohol rehab, among others.

Many expressed concern over the loss of senior staff and the experience that comes with it, saying it could hurt the county’s ability to compete for grants. It could also fragment the county’s unified approach to social justice, according to Shantelle Gaynor, a senior grants administrator with Relationship Violence Services.

“Our proficiency isn’t just in the nuts and bolts of grants, or in the community organizations, but it’s the expansive view of social justice and the need to do meaningful work in our community,” Gaynor said. “As we split up, remaining connected with the larger vision of what it means to serve our community is something we haven’t talked about. Who will hold that piece?”

Commissioners were sympathetic to the concerns of those impacted by the transition, and vowed to manage the move in a smooth and expeditious way. The sooner the transition was completed, they said, the sooner the department heads can identify any deficiencies and submit a request before the next budgeting process.

The transition is expected to be completed by March 1.

“While we may not be able to commit to a dollar figure today outside the budget process, what I can do is commit to everyone in this room that I’ll do my level best to make sure you all have the resources you need to successfully serve the folks of Missoula County,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

While eliminating the department was difficult, Rowley added, it was necessary on a number of fronts. The department isn’t hard funded, meaning it can only apply for grants that offer administrative overhead.

“Our intent is to continue being good community partners,” said Rowley. “But we’re also adding hard funding and financing in a sustainable way, so our grants department can write grants for things that don’t have administrative overhead, and help the county as well.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com