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Missoula County agrees to operate COVID shelter after pending city purchase

Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick and Missoula Mayor John Engen discuss the local response to the COVID-19 pandemic at a recent press conference. The county is backing the city’s proposed purchase of an old motel for use as a shelter during the pandemic. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

A city plan to purchase an old motel for use as an emergency isolation shelter in Missoula won the support of Missoula County commissioners on Thursday.

If the city’s proposed $1.1 million purchase wins final approval from the City Council next week, the county will operate the shelter, with most of the costs being reimbursed by the state and federal government.

“Today, we’ve had an immediate need to provide shelter for 25 individuals who are eligible for this non-congregant shelter,” said Adrian Beck, director of the county’s Office of Emergency Management. “We’ve requested authorization from FEMA and the state to implement the non-congregant shelter.”

Beck said FEMA has authorized such shelters as a tool to help cities respond to the virus. Under government ownership, the Sleepy Inn would enable healthcare officials to quarantine those who test positive for the virus but don’t need hospitalization and have nowhere else to go.

It would also enable those who have been exposed to the virus to quarantine for the 14-day incubation period. It would serve those over the age of 65, and those considered at high risk for negative outcomes.

“We believe we’ve come to a plan that’s acceptable to FEMA and will allow us to meet this need in our community,” said Beck. “We’re looking at how we can do this in a financially responsible way to maximize not only our needs, but our ability to recoup those costs that are eligible.”

With approval from FEMA, the federal government would reimburse 75% of the facility’s operating costs. Gov. Steve Bullock this month waived a requirement that local governments issue their emergency 2-mill levy to fund elements of the pandemic.

Under the waiver, the state would pick up the remaining operational costs of the COVID shelter.

“In concept, that’s what that means,” said Beck. “FEMA will pick up 75% of the tab and that remaining 25% that would otherwise have been a local match will be funded by the state’s share.”

As early as mid-March, health officials began exploring their options, such as renting out hotel rooms during the crisis. But that proved inefficient in terms of cost and operational needs, and no government-owned facilities were available.

“We’ll have to figure out how to staff that up as a government run operation,” said Beck. “Those are the types of things that would be funneled through our office as eligible costs.”

The Missoula Redevelopment Agency on Thursday unanimously approved the city’s purchase of the facility using tax increment financing from Urban Renewal District II. If the City Council approves the purchase next week, the health department would put the shelter to use in the coming weeks.

Under its memorandum of understanding, the county will operate the shelter.

“This will allow us to solve the problem without putting it on the backs of Missoula County taxpayers,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick.