Missoula County race: Strohmaier looks to unseat board incumbent

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The Missoula Current submitted a series of questions to the two Democratic candidates running for a seat on the Missoula County Board of Commissioners. Challenger Dave Strohmaier issued the following answers:

Why do you want to represent the people of Missoula County as a county commissioner?

Fundamentally, I believe that we need elected officials with a clear focus on future generations and a commitment to public service, and serving as commissioner is my way of giving back to the community. From working as a wildland fire incident commander for the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service to serving as a supervisor, project manager, and business partner in the private sector as a historian, I know what it takes to set a vision and get the job done.

I also know from my years on the Missoula City Council what it takes to balance competing interests and diverse viewpoints to pass legislation. It’s important to have a diverse commission, and I bring a conservation and land management background that is critical in a place like Missoula County and that is currently lacking on the commission.

What are the top three issues you would address if elected to the position?

It’s critical that commissioners multi-task and work on a variety of issues simultaneously, but three of my top priorities include (1) land stewardship and conservation, (2) implementing neighborhood/regional plans, and (3) public safety.

First, I’m proud to be the only candidate in this race that has been endorsed by the Montana Conservation Voters, which reflects my commitment to address climate change locally through energy conservation and recognizing the importance of food security and conserving prime agricultural soils.

Second, whether it’s the Target Range Neighborhood Plan, the Seeley Lake Regional Plan, or the Missoula County Growth Policy, plans (which set the vision for economic development and infrastructure investments) only have value if implemented.

Third, we need to enhance mental health and addiction treatment facilities Missoula County, which will have the added benefit of reducing jail overcrowding and promoting healthy families in the region. And, also part of public safety, is recognizing the importance of addressing wildfire risks near communities.

The county’s newly adopted agricultural policy is likely to evolve in the coming year. What areas do you feel deserve a closer look?

Food security is vital, and depends on farmland and prime agricultural soils. Although voluntary conservation measures are always desirable, I believe the commissioners missed an opportunity earlier this year to adopt more substantive regulations that mitigate for the loss of prime agricultural soils.

At least two areas deserve closer investigation as we move forward. First, we should sharpen our focus on those geographic areas of the county most at risk of pressure from growth, and apply agricultural mitigation measures in those areas (crafted to be fair, equitable, and meaningful).

Second, I’m interested in exploring the possibility of creating something akin to a tax increment finance district for agricultural lands such that “increment” accrued following development could be banked in a fund for agricultural land acquisition and/or conservation easements. Protecting agricultural lands has been very divisive within the conservation community, and I look forward to healing that schism.

The master plan for the Missoula County Fairgrounds remains a work in progress. Once adopted, what would you do to implement the plan and begin the improvements?

I spent many years as a member of the Missoula Downtown Master Plan Implementation Committee and the lessons I learned there are equally applicable to the fairgrounds, which includes having a core advocacy group/committee focused on implementation. Beyond that, we should prioritize elements of the plan and implement those first to serve as catalysts for subsequent phases.

Next, we need to affix costs to plan elements, which will inform what sort of fundraising/financing will be required to achieve those goals. I’m very concerned about the level of tax burden in Missoula County, and property owner willingness to adopt yet another bond, so I’ll work with stakeholders to think creatively about how to fund implementation.

Finally, as a professional historian, I’m very cognizant of the importance of preserving physical places that embody our heritage, so with whatever plan is adopted we need to implement it in a way that preserves as much of the fairgrounds historic significance as possible while simultaneously looking to the future with expanded uses such as ice and multi-use facilities.

How would you balance the need to preserve open space with the need to accommodate growth without impacting developers and driving up housing prices?

Let’s be clear, developers will be impacted by decisions to preserve open space. While property owners have the right to propose subdivisions, they have the responsibility to develop their property in a way that promotes the common good and does not adversely affect the broader community without mitigation – whether this is avoiding development in floodplains, sensitive wildlife habitat, etc.

Maximizing profit is not the only value at stake. That said, having reviewed many subdivisions during my time on the Missoula City Council, I know the importance of having clear regulations for both property owners/developers and for the governing body that is reviewing development proposals. Having clear regulations that are interpreted the same by all staff is one way to ensure predictability and keep costs down.

Clustering development, considering inclusionary zoning and land trusts, and encouraging development near existing infrastructure are also ways to keep down housing costs while simultaneously promoting conservation values.

What specific ideas would you implement to improve the local economy and and bring jobs to the county.

Contrary to any naysayers, we have a lot going for us in Missoula County and great economic resources to build upon, including the Bitterroot Economic Development District and the Missoula Economic Partnership.

Tax increment districts, technology districts, and Targeted Economic Development Districts are also extremely useful tools to provide the capital necessary to invest in infrastructure and spur further economic development. We also must improve fiber/telecommunications access.

Missoula is in the middle of Missoula County, and the county needs a commissioner at the table when it comes to implementing the Downtown Master Plan. Finally, much of Missoula County is rural or semi-rural, and we need to recognize unique opportunities for economic development in different communities and regions. This includes expansion of business opportunities in Bonner, revitalizing the Smurfit-Stone Container site in Frenchtown, and supporting agriculture and working landscapes.

Finally, the arts and culture are critical pieces of our social and economic fiber, and we need to do more to promote this in Missoula County.

Can the city and county work more closely on certain issues? Why or why not?

City and county government absolutely must work together. Missoula is the second largest city in the state, and it will continue to grow in the years to come. Some have suggested that one way to create efficiency, save costs, and coordinate efforts would be to combine city and county government.

I’m not convinced that that is the best route for a diverse county like Missoula, but I’m open to investigating the possibility. Regardless, in the short-term, coordination on infrastructure projects (street, trail, telecommunications), development standards, and land-use planning between the city and the county are essential to maintaining our quality of life and respecting the unique and diverse communities throughout the county.

In areas serviced by Mountain Water that are not yet within the City of Missoula (like East Missoula), I’m concerned that there may be the equivalent of taxation without representation insofar as rates will be determined by the city but those individuals have no vote on the city council or mayor. I look forward to addressing this.

What would you say in closing?

I believe that we are stewards of all that we’ve inherited, and that it is our obligation to give back to our communities through public service, in pursuit of the common good. My commitment is to work hard and embody the values that make Missoula County great. I bring a blend of private sector and public sector experience, ranging from 13 years in the business world, 18 years with the federal government, 8 years as a local legislator on the Missoula City Council, and a lifetime of conservation advocacy.

As a wildland fire incident commander and emergency medical technician, I’ve worked in tense and dangerous situations, and know how to effectively work with folks and accomplish jobs even when differences of opinion arise. And, at the end of the day, I believe that public service is about caring for one another, showing respect for one another, and leaving this place better than we found it for future generations.