Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) Whether it was inflation, the stock market or a general malaise around taxes, voters in Missoula were clear on Tuesday night, saying they weren't ready to fund any more projects or services, at least right now.

For the first time in recent memory, Missoula voters upended two funding initiatives, one being a $19 million bond to improve the county fairgrounds and the other being a levy that would have raised $5 million annually to support crisis services.

Both campaigns spent months working to drum up support but in the end, they both fell short of their goal. What happens next in the realm of crisis services will likely take center stage in the months to come.

“I wouldn't have tackled this project if I didn't have strong convictions about it in the first place,” said Shannon Flanagan, who spearheaded the crisis services levy. “I still feel that in our long-term solution to these things, we took the wrong step yesterday. But I certainly have to respect the results of the election. It's a bitter pill, but we'll move forward and pivot to different solutions.”

The Missoula City Council in August on an 8-2 vote passed a resolution asking Missoula County to place the levy on the November ballot, which it did. But work to get a crisis levy in front of the public started months before that.

Polling in March suggested the public would support such a measure. But then inflation pushed up the price of basic goods, gasoline topped $5 a gallon and the stock market took a dive. Some of those costs have begun to soften, but the election has now come and gone.

“I feel like there were some currents we couldn't fight,” Flanagan said. “Retirees are looking at their retirement accounts and wondering how far their money will stretch. It marginalized more people than we were dealing with in March or April. That kind of crushed things.”

Over the past two years, the city and county have directed millions of dollars in federal funding, largely from the American Rescue Plan Act, to prop up a number of crisis services.

They included longer hours of operation for the Mobile Support Team, more shelter options for the homeless, funding to attract shelter workers, and other efforts.

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With just $900,000 remaining in its ARPA account, the City Council this month opted to close an outdoor homeless camp and direct its remaining resources toward the Emergency Winter Shelter. While doing so, it held out hope that the crisis levy would pass to cover future program costs.

Without the levy, the city and county have enough funding to operate the winter shelter for one more season next winter. Without the public sector at the table, it's unknown where the city and county will find the funding to run such operations after that.

“I think Missoula is going to have some very tough decisions to make,” said Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of the United Way of Missoula County. “There aren't any easily identifiable sources of funding for things like the mobile support team, the planned crisis receiving center or the temporary safe outdoor space.”

The cost of operating such programs is steep and so far, many of those costs have been covered by funding from ARPA. The city's Fiscal Year '23 budget included $156,000 for the Crisis Intervention Team, $969,000 for the Mobile Support Team, $94,000 for homeless initiatives and staffing, and $964,000 for Operation Shelter.

Missoula Mayor Jordan Hess last month said that without funding from the levy, it would be difficult to find that amount of revenue in the general fund in a single year.

Patrick agreed.

“We've said all along that addressing these issues is too big a lift for any one sector alone,” she said. “Now that the public sector isn't going to be at the table in the form a revenue levy, we're going to have some tough conversations.”

Patrick believes many voters opposed the levy because the programs would have been operated by the government and government, some believe, isn't always a capable tool.

“The voters have spoken and I respect the will of the people, even when I disagree with it,” Patrick said “Many of the people who opined against the levy and voted against it said government was inefficient and nonprofits were best to address crises. I call on those people to start supporting or increasing the support of nonprofits that are on the front lines of helping people in crisis.”

Other states, including Oregon, have seen both Democrats and Republicans come together in a desire to address the problem and tap into state funding to do so.

The state of Montana is currently sitting on a roughly $1 billion surplus, and some contend that a small portion of that should go to fund crisis services.

“We have some very limited options,” said Patrick. “I understand the issue with people's property taxes. We all feel it. But I feel the cost of doing nothing is greater than the cost of this levy.”

Flanagan agreed and expressed concern over the message Tuesday night's vote sent to those who provide crisis services in Missoula.

“Throughout our campaign, I got to meet a lot of people who work directly with the population we're talking about.” said Flanagan. “They're facing a 'no' today, as if their work isn't important enough for us to support it. I hope that doesn't linger. Missoula is very responsible about taking care of its citizens.”

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