Missoula City Council candidate Q&A: Heidi West, Ward 1
In advance of the 2019 primary and general elections for six Missoula City Council seats, Missoula Current asked each of the 15 candidates a series of questions based on issues facing city leaders in the years ahead. Their answers will be reprinted verbatim.
We begin with Ward 1, where three candidates are vying for one seat. That number will be winnowed to two candidates in the Sept. 10 primary election. City Council races are non-partisan; each term is for four years.
Ward 1 includes downtown Missoula, the Rattlesnake Valley, Marshall Canyon and the Northside. Heidi West is the incumbent and is seeking reelection. Her challengers are Amber Shaffer and Elizabeth Weaver.
The candidates’ answers will be presented one at a time on consecutive days, in alphabetical order.
Heidi West, Ward 1
Q: Do you support the use of tax increment financing as a tool for economic development, job growth and expanding the city's tax base?
A: Yes. Because a municipality’s funding options are so limited, Urban Renewal Districts and Tax Increment Financing, are a tool that can be used to re-develop and re-invest within a defined area. The Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA) is distinct and separate from the Missoula City Council. They have enabling legislation that defines how and where the TIF funds can be utilized. These funds are applied toward portions of a project that meet broader community goals such as preserving historic facades, deconstructing over demolishing, improving below ground infrastructure (sewer, water, other utilities), and improve above ground public infrastructure (sidewalks, curbs, gutters, street trees, etc..). Revenue from a district can be spent with fewer restrictions and has been used to create missing connections in the Missoula trail and sidewalk system, support affordable housing projects, invest in public structures that provide essential services, and fund playgrounds.
Q: Do you support the city's new housing policy, and what would you do to implement the recommendations?
A: For two years, at the North-Missoula Community Development Corporation (NMCDC), I worked on a single affordable home ownership project, Lee Gordon Place, which brought seven units reserved for low-moderate income households, to market in May of 2019. This project is one of four developments in the NMCDC’s Community Land Trust. Lee Gordon Place was initiated with a very generous land donation in 2015 and took time, hard work, many dedicated people, and funding sources to bring to fruition. I support for expanding the use of Community Land Trusts as a way to preserve an affordable housing stock within our community, but since this is what I do, I would like to focus on other parts of the housing policy. We need many tools to produce and preserve affordable homes in Missoula.
The current policy sets a framework and intention, but much of the actionable policy details, are still to come. It is vital that in this process we intentionally expand the inclusion of people directly impacted by the lack of affordable housing options. I support the creation of a Housing Trust Fund that funded by multiple sources. Relying solely on Federal and State funding sources as to develop affordable housing comes with risk, competition and unpredictability. The almost annual suggestion by Congress to cut HOME and CDBG funds, or the state level allocation of 9% tax credit funds to communities outside of Missoula, does not reflect Missoula’s housing needs. Having a local funding source, with less bureaucratic hurdles, and more predictability makes affordable housing development quicker, less costly, and more responsive to immediate needs. In the short term, I support the creation of a Landlord Liaison Position to be a resource to existing landlords, to provide support needed to rent to housing voucher holders. This should be paired with a Risk Mitigation Fund to be able to intervene on behalf of the property, the renter and the owner. I strongly support the inclusion and expansion of the relationship between the Missoula Redevelopment Agency (MRA), developers, and the City to address affordable housing. The MRA has partnered with the NMCDC, Homeword and the Missoula Housing Authority to build affordable homeownership and rental options. Finally, the housing policy essentially suggests a Voluntary Inclusionary Zoning framework. It is imperative that the resulting development is tracked and evaluated to determine if it is meeting overall community goals.
While I know the existing policy deals, well, with housing, there are three main issues that need to be continually be voiced in this context:
- Low Wages
- The high cost of childcare
- The cost or ability to access Healthcare
For a significant portion of our population there is also a fourth looming issue: student debt. While the solutions that can be written into the Missoula Zoning Code, will not be able to address these, it is important to continue to highlight the complexity of housing attainability.
Q: What would you do to expand the city's tax base to pay for essential services and the increasing cost of providing those services?
A: A city is not a simple math equation. A city is not a math equation into a closed system. The wording of this question takes the humanity out of choices, assumes that all benefits and costs can be monetized, and it also suggests that expanding the city’s tax base is the only way of dealing with the increased cost of services. Both the questions and answers are much more complex and allow (thankfully) for much more creativity.
For example, Missoula’s chronically homeless population has disproportionate cost to our emergency systems (police, fire, medical). The solution is not to raise taxes and continue paying for a complex social issues by only providing emergency services, it is to bring the right partners to the table to provide permanent supportive housing, and to make sure that everyone has the dignity of a place to call home.
Local governments do not exist in a vacuum. Cities have increased costs, that anecdotally are the results of cuts at the federal and state level. The local municipal justice system is seeing increased caseloads, fire are responding to increased medical calls, and police deal with more neighbor disputes, as vulnerable populations lose access to mental and medical case management.
The city also operates within historical contexts.For example, the city currently provides essential services, such as sewer, to large geographic areas that are not a part of the cities tax base. City sewer extends to the Wye and East Missoula, and while users pay a fee for service, they are not currently paying into the city tax base. The current sewer system, is the result of many choices that were made by past administrations and councils for a variety of reasons, including improving water quality, but extending additional services that come with annexation may, or may not balance financially and will be taken into consideration. Historical context is never simple, but it is vital to making informed future decisions.
Where and what the City of Missoula chooses to spend money on also has an impact beyond the local scale. Decisions Missoula makes has costs and benefits to the local ecosystem, but also has effects nationally and globally as we are preparing for a collective future impacted by climate change.
Both the problems and solutions that cities are continually assessing and redefining are multi-disciplinary. This requires inclusivity of citizens and community partners, as well as the context of history, humanity, science, technology, and engineering, in addition to math, to define and create lasting and effective change.
Q: Do you believe a series of tweets sent out by President Donald Trump targeting four minority members of Congress this month were racist? Why or why not?
A: Yes. I believe that the series of tweets sent out by President Donald Trump, targeting the four minority members of Congress this month are racist, but also sexist and classist. The language used by President Donald Trump delegitimize and otherizes four women who have been elected to serve a majority of their respective constituencies and are effectively giving voice to real issues present in our society.
It is upsetting, sad, angry-making, and I struggle to verbalize the intense emotions triggered by this language.
This language is learned, used for harm, and defines social structures. For me, this language places me back in 3rd grade, a few weeks into the transition from being homeschooled to attending a public school in Germany, hiding behind a curtain crying because the Turkish girl in my class is being bullied and I feel powerless. I am right back on the 7th grade socio-economically divided middle school playground in Oklahoma, being told to go back to my side of the railroad tracks to which I weakly protest: “But I do live on this side of the railroad tracks”. I’ve just moved to the United States, and the realization dawns that there is a right and a wrong side to the railroad tracks: One side is wealthy and mostly white, and the other side is poor and has most of Bartlesville’s minorities. Where I live doesn’t fall into either space. I don’t belong.
It is often hard to recognize classism, sexism and racism unless it is directly witnessed or experienced. It is easier to victim blame, to internalize fault, to give someone a pass because they are a white man of a certain generation, and to engage on an individual level with the goal of proving individual worth rather than proving the system might be worthless. These tweets while factually untrue, speak a huge truth: racism, sexism, classism exist, in the here and now, and it is real and pervasive.
Q: What would you do to ensure the city continues to meet the wide range of citizen demands while keeping an eye on taxes?
A: We purchased our home shortly after the economic downturn, from an acquaintance who took a gamble on a first and second mortgage during the (former) peak of the Missoula bubble, and wanted out of a precarious financial situation. At the time, my family qualified for food stamps, WIC and the Low Income Energy Assistance Program, but we also had the privilege of having access to intergenerational “ wealth” in the form of a gifted down-payment that allowed us to purchase a reasonably priced, fixer upper, on the Northside of Missoula. ( I use the term intergenerational wealth in the context of someone having just enough money to invest in someone else’s future, not in the context of being wealthy.) For the first few years that we owned our home we qualified for the Property Tax Assistance Program. Through patience, planning, saving, sweat equity and a touch of desperation we are in the process of reinventing the small fixer upper we initially bought. These improvements, as well as higher property valuations issued by the State of Montana Department of Revenue, have resulted in a significant increase of my property taxes. But, property taxes are not money that I pay for nothing. They are a multitude of things that I and my family benefit from; they are the parks and trails, the schools my kids attend, jobs in our community, our streets, the first responders that come when we need them most, and many supportive services that have allowed us to thrive in this place we have chosen to be home.
The annual city budget is a hard process. We are a growing city, in a desirable location, with aging infrastructure. Every year there are parks and trails that don’t receive adequate maintenance funding, or positions that should be created and get postponed to the future, and asks that never even make it before the city council body. The relationship between households and the increased property valuations is unique to each individual - for example - the increased valuation of my property has allowed me to take advantage of that equity to take out a substantial Home Equity Line of Credit for home improvements which has had a positive outcome on my overall living condition, while the same increase of value can be very challenging for a retired individual on a fixed income. While there are tax relief programs available on the state level, we are an equal taxation state, and that does not allow city governments to alter the impact of the property tax burden on a local level. As individuals representing our constituency we are all aware of the challenges of our system, but as a council we are tasked with providing services to and protecting the health and safety of all of our citizenry. Council has spent months debating individual asks by the time the final budget comes to the Monday night vote. As an individual, I am not always 100% happy with what items did or did not get included in the budget, but am also a 100% confident that the council as a whole has deliberated the validity of and the responsible use of taxpayer funds for the items up for the final vote.
Last year, we were in the council chambers, long past midnight listening to public comments on the city budget. People voiced valid anger, concerns, and fears. They all spoke a truths about their own lives and lived experiences that spoke to huge problems present in our society - the cost of housing, the cost of healthcare, the burden of debt, the unfair competition of local wages in a national market, the loss of access to mental health services - it was a long and hard night - but a simple solution based in property taxes does not exist. Property taxes, and voter approved bonds, are the only sources of funding a local government has, and the only way we can provide essential health and safety services for our citizens, and especially when funding of services are cut on the state and federal level, local municipalities not only bear additional financial costs, but also bear witness to the increasing challenges born by individual people.
Q: What more can the city do to accommodate non-motorized transportation to achieve the goals in the Long Range Transportation Plan?
A: There are many small and big ways that the City of Missoula can help facilitate a mode shift to more non-motorized transportation options. Missoula currently has a commuter trail system and the City’s Parks and Recreation Department currently does a fantastic job of keeping the existing commuter trails open and functioning during the winter season, and expanding this infrastructure is of benefit to all of Missoula. The expansion and operation of this infrastructure can be supported in a variety of ways - whether it is by allocating funding to staff to operate plows, paying for missing gaps in path systems from the city budget, or approving MRA spending to build out the trail system within URD districts. The MRA has been instrumental in creating the commuter trail system we have today and are an integral partner in funding past, current and future non-motorized connectivity within Missoula.
It is important to continue to consider public transit as a part of land use decisions and to partner with Mountain Line where appropriate. It is also important to evaluate the accessibility and safety of pedestrian infrastructure that allows people to get to bus stops from their homes or workplaces. Especially along the high frequency routes, it is important to evaluate the interior of the neighborhoods to make sure that sidewalks and curb cuts are built out to allow people of all abilities to access public transit.
The current process involved in creating an updated Pedestrian Facilities Master Plan includes discussions around equity and access to infrastructure that supports positive health outcomes for vulnerable and low-income populations. This is an important shift in how the City of Missoula discusses infrastructure needs and will facilitate the identification of needs and barriers to increasing the inclusion and diversity of user groups that can participate in a non-motorized mode shift.
It is also important to recognize that there is a gender split in the numbers of users who currently utilize our commuter rail system. Currently the number of male users outnumber those of females. This is a trend that has been documented in other communities. Some cities have transitioned to building pedestrian infrastructure and designing cities based on the needs outlined by women, because they are often also are transporting small children in strollers, getting groceries, running household errands, or providing medical care to sick children or aging parents. It turns out building cities that work for women and children results in spaces and designs that are inclusive to most user groups. Designing on this level goes beyond transportation alone, but also makes sure that communities overall function on a person scale: Do we have neighborhood parks, schools, daycares, grocery stores, pharmacies, access to healthcare? Are these places accessible? What are we missing?
Q: What would be your primary goal as a member of the City Council? How would you fund it?
A: In my position as a City Council member, I strive for equity and access to a clean environment, safe housing, and health for all Missoula residents. I strive toward these objectives in my personal life, my career, and continuing as a City Council Member representing Ward 1. Equity and access to a clean environment, safe housing and health are underlying themes supported by specific policy objectives. I am currently working with city staff to bring policy limiting plastic bag use in Missoula, will be involved updating e-cigarette and vaping policy, and see much opportunity in the City ownership of the water system, the compost facility, and the storm water system. The city is currently in the process of conducting a rate study for all city owned utilities, and I am very much looking forward to reading the results of that investigation. The ownership of the sewer and water utility could be used to help reduce the infrastructure cost of developing affordable housing. The compost facility, currently takes all the solids an entire city flushes down the toilet, and turns it into COMPOST!!!!! Since this is a facility that is city owned, there is opportunity to expand how and what the services the city provides to the community. I look forward to discussing how the stormwater utility can be utilized to not only protect the water quality of our streams, rivers and aquifers, but also how it can incentivise building and surfacing to reduce water runoff, lower the temperature impact of a city, and encourage the use of greener building methods. Programs within our utilities would be financed through the individual enterprise fund balances.