Homelessness and economic development played as central themes in a candidate forum Tuesday that saw Missoula’s challenger for mayor criticize the size of city government, city spending and the city’s efforts to address homelessness.
But the incumbent mayor said broad efforts to grow the city’s economy and develop plans to address homelessness in partnership with service providers are paying off, or at least taking shape, and now is not the time to change course.
Challenger Jacob Elder, a University of Montana law student, and incumbent Mayor John Engen detailed their plans for the office’s next term and answered brief questions before an audience hosted by the Downtown Missoula Partnership.
While Elder said party politics aren’t behind his goal to become the city’s next mayor, he maintained his conservative platform, one he has detailed in past events. While city government has grown in recent years alongside Missoula’s population growth, Elder said, the quality of life hasn’t improved.
“We have rising homelessness and we have a rising crime rate,” Elder said. “Our community has been compromised. And we’re sitting here talking about things that are adversarial to the issues we should be talking about.”
Elder took aim at tax increment financing, saying that while the program could benefit the community, the revenue “has been spent unwisely.” He cited examples of what he considered to be a misuse of tax increment, and described it as problematic.
He also believes the city is spending its revenue poorly.
“I want to rein in spending,” he said. “I want to restore balance to our city government finances and ensure we all move on to a prosperous future. It’s about doing what’s right for our community so we can have a more prosperous future.”
Elder didn’t cite any specific examples of what he’d cut to reduce city spending.
Engen, who operated several small businesses in downtown Missoula, remembered the blight that occurred in the downtown district after Southgate Mall opened. It has taken decades to restore the district, and that occurred through planning and partnerships, he said.
“We’ve done a couple of very intentional things to change the nature of downtown and its trajectory,” Engen said. “There is activity now, there is engagement, there is vitality in downtown Missoula. And that’s a function of our master plan and our investment.”
The city has adopted two versions of the Downtown Master Plan in the last decade, the first occurring shortly after Engen initially took office. The city also has established a number of private-public partnerships that have brought elements of the Downtown Master Plan to fruition, with more in the pipeline.
Engen said tax increment has laid the public foundation that has attracted private investment. Over the last 20 years, downtown Missoula has attracted more than $200 million in private funding, according to the Downtown Missoula Partnership.
“Almost everything we called for in that Downtown Master Plan has come to pass with a couple of exceptions, and I think those exceptions will be recognized here in fairly short order,” Engen said. “If you look at downtown Missoula today and its redevelopment, that would not happen but for tax increment. Without our investment, downtown would be a much different place today.”
Housing prices and homelessness also are challenging cities across the West, and Missoula is no different. The city and county, in partnership with area service providers, developers and nonprofits, are working on a number of housing projects that will bring several hundred units to the market.
They’ve also teamed up to address homelessness, though that plan has taken time to manifest. Among other things, the city and county are set to open a sanctioned homeless camp, allowing them to close the illegal Reserve Street camp, which has drawn a number of public complaints.
They’re also working to establish a navigation center to help the homeless obtain and keep housing, and they’re developing plans to create transitional housing for the homeless. The city also has adopted a housing policy – its first ever.
“Homelessness is one of the critical challenges not just for the City of Missoula today, but for communities where people want to live around the country. We have to be intentional,” Engen said. “It has to be aspiration, intentional and experimental. No one has cracked this case. But there are long-term pieces of this business and short term pieces, and we’re doing both.”
Elder suggested the city’s efforts on the housing and homeless front amounted to “election year politics,” saying only now are the pieces in place to change the equation. He said the city’s housing efforts needed greater oversight, and he described the city’s Ten Year Plan to End Homelessness as “an epic failure.”
He said he wants to help the homeless through treatment.
“When you pay your taxes, you’re paying for limited amount of services. You’re not paying to continue dumping money into the mayor’s Ten Year Plan,” Elder said. “We have to attack the underlying issues. If you have mental health issues, we’ll send you to treatment. If you have a drug addiction, we’ll get you treatment. We want to get these people out of these tents.”