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Survey of Missoula residents finds housing, mental health, homelessness as top issues

As city leaders craft a budget for the new fiscal year, they’ll glean the results of a new community survey taken in April, which found housing, homelessness and mental health care as the top issues facing Missoula.

The results in the 2021 survey didn’t net any significant surprises, city officials said Wednesday. But they could inform the FY22 budgeting process, which begins this summer.

“This really begins our budget process in earnest,” said Mayor John Engen. “What we found in this survey is that there aren’t many surprises here, but there are some interesting trends. The survey itself is validation of some of what we’ve been thinking and an opportunity to make adjustments.”

The survey used the same methodology as in 2018, as well as the same polling firm. It sampled 603 registered city voters by phone within the city limits.

When asked about the city’s greatest challenges, housing topped the list in 2018, followed by taxes and spending. While housing held the top spot this year as well, homelessness and poverty took the second slot.

Jobs and cost of living remained third in both years.

“This is the first year I’m really starting to see patterns, even though we’ve had a whirlwind of the last 14 months,” said City Council member Gwen Jones. “There are some things holding steady and then some factors that are changing, as one would expect after the last year or so.”

When asked about residents’ satisfaction with various city services, parks and trails, fire services and police services scored high. But access to mental health, permitting, traffic management, child care and housing affordability scored low in satisfaction levels.

Support for tax increases to fund improvements to services varied.

“We’ve heard a lot about property tax reform and we’ve been advocating for it a lot,” said Dale Bickell. “But it’s also how willing are you to support the services we provide for us to be able to continue to maintain or increase our level of service.”

The survey found varying support for tax increases across all categories, though fire services, mental health and housing affordability scored highest with moderate support. Tax increases to support planning for growth, traffic management, permitting and municipal court scored the lowest.

“Clearly housing affordability is a top issue of our residents. They’re actually willing to help support housing affordability by paying for it,” said city CAO Dale Bickell. “If we can come up with programs to support that, I think our residents would tend to support that.”

The survey touched on other factors as well, including quality of life. The number of respondents who described it as “excellent” fell by 2% and those who said it was “good” fell by 3%. The number of respondents who said it was “fair,” “below average” and “poor” all increased slightly.

But views on quality of life varied by ward, with Ward 3 (University District) scoring the highest at 81% and Ward 6 (Reserve Street area) scoring the lowest at 70%.

“This is a really good tool for us,” council member Mirtha Becerra said of the survey. “It helps keep our finger on the pulse of the community and what the needs are.”