Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) From road maintenance to community safety, Missoula Mayor Andrea Davis on Wednesday laid out her new strategic plan, much of which remains unchanged from prior mayors.

The top priorities continue the city's core services including public works, police and fire, parks and administrative services. Homelessness is on the list, as well as housing. Economic development plays a stronger role.

While one city council member criticized the process heading into budgeting, Davis said the strategic priorities move the city closer to a performative-based budget.

“It's the first step toward a more performative-based budget structure,” Davis said. “It's a step in the right direction, but it's not complete. We have an opportunity to do some expanded thinking around this.”

The strategic plan sets forth a number of goals, recognizing both the challenges and opportunities facing the city. Davis said they'll help guide the budgetary decisions facing the city in the coming weeks.

While economic development has always been part of the mix, this year Davis is giving it a higher priority, saying the city has a number of opportunities to address such things as housing and economic growth.

“So much of the work the city does is in partnership with other members of the community,” Davis said. “The key objectives for FY 25 is to continue to seek private-sector partners for the development of city-owned land.”

The city began land-banking under former Mayor John Engen and now holds a number of properties, including a Scott Street parcel that's under development for both income-restricted and workforce housing.

The city also has selected a developer to redevelop the old library block downtown. Davis also said the city “continues to move forward with the Riverfront Triangle negotiations with the developer who has secured the development rights there.”

Davis added that other efforts are also underway, including redevelopment of the Sleepy Inn property and other parcels.

“By all accounts, it looks like we'll be moving forward with the purchase of the 10 acres behind Bob Wards,” Davis said. “The idea isn't to just hold these lands. We want to get them into the hands of the private sector to redevelop them.”

Redevelopment opportunities include both affordable and market-rate housing, commercial and other economic goals. As part of that, Davis said the city will continue working with other municipalities across the state on legislative policy priorities including tax reform, Medicaid expansion, homelessness and tax increment financing.

The Legislature recently changed language in state law making “workforce housing” eligible for tax increment financing. The Missoula Redevelopment Agency was quick to take advantage of the program and adopted new guidelines to support the construction of housing.

Davis said the city will continue to sharpen the program.

“We want to make sure we continue to tailor our criteria and program for our local needs when it comes to rental and home-ownership opportunities,” Davis said. “It's a pilot program and we felt it was important to call that out and continue to work on that.”

Other goals and budgeting

Other city priorities include building a new fire station and creating a new fire company to staff it. Davis said hiring has already begun and the city is looking to site the new station. Addressing the spatial needs of the Missoula Police Department will also continue in the new fiscal year.

Energy and climate work also remains a top priority, and Davis said the city will work to define its role in supporting public arts and culture. Homelessness also retains a place in the city's latest strategic priorities.

“That was in our plan last year, but it's important to note that our Johnson Street shelter isn't permanently funded,” Davis said. “We have a temporary location for that facility, and we continue to work with our community partners to identify the most appropriate sheltering response for the community.”

While the city's annual strategic plan is nothing new, council member Kristen Jordan criticized the process on Wednesday. Jordan said her time working for the federal government in Australia and handling funding requests was a far different experience than the approach taken by the City of Missoula.

Primarily, she said Davis's strategic priorities were aspirational and, like past mayors, they didn't come with any measurable outcomes.

“I have a lot of concerns about how we enter budget seasons with a lot of aspirational language and a lot of anecdotal evidence to support the asks,” Jordan said. “It's hard for me to know how to prioritize spending when we go through our budget cycle. I see this strategic plan coming through with a lot of aspirational language but no real hard way to measure how we're going to evaluate our effectiveness.”

Davis defended the plan and the city's evolving approach to budgeting. Among other things, she said the plan calls for a “results oriented culture.” That includes using “strategic lenses in decision-making” and supporting “data-driven management decisions.”

Davis, who recently participated in a Bloomberg leadership program, said a results-oriented culture was taken up by the City of Missoula as a best practice.

“This is the project we've selected, developing a results-oriented management framework. This is a high priority for us,” Davis said. “We don't yet have a uniform way across all departments to actually put this system in place. But it's an area of focus for us.”

Jordan, who also criticized the mayor's working group on urban camping, followed by saying she didn't have the tools she needed to make budgeting decisions based upon the stated priorities. She also took a jab at the city council president's approach to the FY 25 budgeting process.

“I don't have the information I need, and perhaps the difference between my professional background and (council president Amber Sherrill's) is that I do have different things I like to see when I make a budgetary decision, and I don't see them right now,” said Jordan.

Sherrill, who formerly served as executive director of the Five Valley's Land Trust, responded to Jordan's criticism.

“We all come with a different background,” Sherrill said. “Having run a nonprofit, I definitely understand budgetary decisions.”