By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT
Calling it a fundamental human right, Missoula Mayor John Engen on Monday announced plans to adopt a housing policy that extends living opportunities to all citizens – regardless of income. He also restated his goal of owning and operating the city’s drinking water system, saying it was an essential key to planning for the next century.
Engen joined Missoula County Commissioner Cola Rowley and University of Montana President Royce Engstrom in laying out a vision for the future, one that will see expanded programming in areas of health and medicine at UM and better use of data when making decisions at the county level.
“The state of the community is not only good, but in my opinion, it’s the best it’s ever been,” Engen told an audience assembled for the 2016 State of the City address, hosted by the Missoula Chamber of Commerce. “The changes afoot are immense and remarkable.”
Engen said Missoula will continue to evolve through well-planned growth and development. Over the next decade, he said, the city’s major corridors, including Broadway, Brooks and Russell, will transform into commercial and residential hubs complete with key services and new opportunities.
He said recent fixes to the city’s zoning policy, coupled with the recently adopted Our Missoula Growth Policy, positioned Missoula to move beyond the recession and seize new economic opportunities.
“We are busy, and we’ll continue to be busy,” Engen said. “We can chose the way we regulate growth, the way we police growth, and the way we chose to grow our communities. We as a community created a growth policy that reflects our community values moving forward.”
Looking forward, Engen said a housing policy tops his list of goals for 2016. It’s an issue that’s been talked about for years, he said, though talk has not resulted in action.
But Engen believes the opportunity has presented itself for the city to tackle the challenge. The policy would provide housing opportunities to all citizens, whether its those who earn “a gazillion dollars” or those struggling to make ends meet.
“We need to build housing for people who cannot leave a bottle or a pill alone,” Engen said. “Their lives are a fog and will continue to be a fog, but they ought to be able to live. I believe it’s a fundamental human right, and I believe the city of Missoula ought to adopt the notion formally that it’s a fundamental human right.”
Engen said city leaders will also look for solutions to ease crowding problems at City Hall, the police station and Municipal Court. He also spoke briefly of the city’s efforts to take ownership of Mountain Water Co.
Pacing the stage, Engen referred to an article written in 1924 in which 300 Missoula residents packed City Hall to discuss buying the water system for $300,000. Back then, city leaders voted otherwise, something Engen described as a missed opportunity.
“The reason I and City Council and staff have pursued the purchase of Mountain Water so vigorously is because we need to plan for the next 100, 200 and 300 years, and we can’t afford in any way to be short sighted,” Engen said. “We make 100-year decisions all year long.”
On the county side, Commissioner Cola Rowley highlighted the county’s resent open-space projects, four of which helped preserve nearly 800 acres for agriculture, watersheds and wildlife corridors.
She also noted the county’s partnership with Trout Unlimited and the Lolo National Forest to continue restoring the Ninemile watershed – an area heavily mined and later abandoned leaving grave environmental consequences.
“We’ve restored 121 acres of floodplain, 2.3 miles of stream and moved 250,000 cubic yards of mine tailings,” Rowley said. “This improves the quality of Ninemile Creek and its tributaries. It reduces erosion and contamination, and it lowers stream temperatures.”
Rowley also noted progress on the Missoula to Lolo Trail and spoke of the county’s efforts to address jail overcrowding. She said the county was also moving to apply data when making daily decisions.
“You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” said Rowley. “It doesn’t mean our staff is collecting more paperwork, more bureaucracy, wasting time collecting useless numbers. It’s just garnering meaning from a few key pieces of data.”
Rowley said taxpayers are looking beyond the numbers in an effort to better understand where public funds are being spent. She described the transition as a shift to data-centered government.
“We operate on a limited budget,” Rowley said. “If we can strategically allocate our resources toward what we know works, we can redirect our efforts, create efficiency gains and reinvest that money into what’s most important to our community.”
UM Present Royce Engstrom opened his remarks by highlighting the school’s continued high rankings in national polls, and by praising student leaders for being forward thinking when ordering two electric buses.
But Engstrom directed much of his time in Monday’s remarks toward the university’s new Health and Medicine initiative. Announced last week, the effort looks to foster and promote advances in health education and research at the Missoula-based university.
“We have a wide range of programs at the university in the health profession already,” Engstrom said. “In fact, we have 37 different programs in the health professions – more than any other school in the state.”
Those programs range from neuroscience – a new major that opened last year – to athletic training. The school’s health and medical research continues to grow, Engstrom said, and the clinical applications continue to evolve.
“We’re in a unique position for having major healthcare systems in Missoula, and a major research university that has a great deal of programming in the area of health,” Engstrom said. “Over the next few years, we’re looking at starting a physician’s assistant program and occupational therapy to compliment the programs available today.”
Engstrom mentioned the school’s declining enrollment, but said the slide is being addressed at all levels throughout the college. He said UM’s economic contribution to the local economy remains robust.
Over each of the last three years, Engstrom said, the UM Foundation has raised more than $50 million, much of which stays local to aid with tuition, salaries and other projects. Last year, he added, the Adams Center hosted 77 events beyond athletics – also a boon to the local economy.
Engstrom said research and development also help drive the local economy.
“Last year, we had an all-time record year,” he said. “We brought in $83 million of grants and contracts to support the research and related activities. That was spent mostly right here in salaries and wages and purchases. It’s a major infusion to Missoula’s economy.”