Housing, equity and the economy played as common themes on Monday as city and county leaders considered the state of the community, saying it was strong yet offered room for growth.
The annual event, hosted by City Club Missoula, hinged on questions around the pandemic, its impacts and how Missoula will emerge in the coming months.
The county has spent around $20 million addressing the pandemic and its associated costs, including lost jobs and revenue. But both the city and county combined stand to receive around $35 million from the recent American Rescue Plan – funding that offers new possibilities.
Missoula Mayor John Engen touched on some potential uses of the funding.
“Not only will it allow us to hold property taxes flat over the next couple of years, but it also allows us to provide support and offer innovative programs around mental health crisis response, homelessness and addressing the housing crisis,” Engen said. “Housing continues to likely be the highest priority in the City of Missoula.”
Like the county, city leaders have described the past year as a difficult one. Yet along the way, local government shifted gears and maintained essential functions, applied new technology to host public meetings, and addressed internal logistical challenges early in the pandemic.
But Engen said the challenges went beyond the pandemic alone and included social, electoral and political unrest. He said the community took its lumps but emerged intact and now faces new opportunities, from bolstering the city’s infrastructure to building a stronger business sector.
“We are perched on what I call a Missoula renaissance,” Engen said. “We will continue to deliver those basic services all day long.”
While some last year called on the city to “defund” the police, Engen said the city instead increased the police budget to improve officer training in areas of deescalation, mental illness and passionate response.
Those investments went beyond the department and included the city fire department and the mobile crisis response team created reach those in need of immediate help.
“We’re recognizing that the federal government has stepped away from that, and local governments are having to create the infrastructure around that social safety net, and provide those services that were once the domain of those government entities,” Engen said. “We’re going to continue to provide the essential services the City of Missoula provides, but we’re going to do more in the future.”
Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier also touched on the challenges of the past year and the opportunities that lie ahead.
The state of the community “is strong, but oh so fragile,” he said.
“Housing obviously 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,” Strohmaier said. “Because we didn’t just hit the pause button during the pandemic, we’re ready to hit the accelerator around this bend.”
The county continues to address a number of ongoing plans, including Mullan-area infrastructure, updated zoning codes, a new Food Policy Advisory Board and coexisting with fire. Climate change hasn’t abated, Strohmaier added, and neither has the county’s commitment to mitigate the crisis.
Strohmaier said the county also looks to break down political and ideological divides and, like the city, place equity at the forefront of local decisions.
“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,” he said. “We’ve created a new community justice department and earlier this year we hired our first diversity coordinator. We’re even reevaluating how bone-dry procurement policies can be enlivened to address equity.”