Vero and Slotnick: Missoula County moving forward; Strohmaier key to progress
Juanita Vero and Josh Slotnick
The days are contracting, and the most beautiful season is upon us. Between farming (Josh) and ranching (Juanita) we’ve spent most of our lives outside and appreciate a specific quality of fall. Sure, the last few weeks’ cobalt skies and sweatshirt-cold morning air make for some of the best weather of the year, but that’s not it; in fall, when you raise your head from the work at hand, you get clear sky clarity.
Fall is also election season, that means the soundbites are flying like debris in a Florida hurricane. So this moment could really use some clarity, and that’s why we’re writing. We would like to add some clarity into the race for County Commissioner from District Two and throw our support firmly behind Dave Strohmaier.
County commissionering is a team effort, no one of us could get anything done alone. We three work on behalf of the County and work shoulder to shoulder with our staff every day. As a team, we have chosen to view other local governments, other electeds, citizen groups, non-profits, businesses, trade associations and neighbors all as potential allies. We are willing to take chances, to try new approaches to address long-standing problems, all while old-school values like fairness, responsibility and stewardship permeate our work. Here’s a recitation of sorts of some of what this team has accomplished over the last few years.
A year after we took office, the Covid Spring ground life to a stop. We used the tools we had, and made up some new ones, to address the economic perilousness of that moment. We re-oriented Community Development Block Grant dollars towards Covid response grants for small businesses, we created a rental assistance program in partnership with United Way, we moved economic development business loans into forbearance, until the economy opened again, and we waved credit card fees at the Clerk and Recorder/Treasurer's office - that was in the first month of the crisis.
At the Health Department we used federal money to manage testing, case investigation and contact tracing (remember those words?), and then, through our uber-competent Office of Emergency Management, we oversaw a super smooth roll-out of vaccines, coordinated decentralized delivery and led the state in getting people fully vaccinated (which turned out to correlate with saving lives). As things opened-up, we got hit hard again, but this time the coastal export wasn’t a virus, but humanity itself.
Tourism soared and some of our most loved local recreation spots – places where heavy use already powerfully affected nearby neighborhoods – got crushed. We worked with the Sheriff's Department to get new deputies on the job, these deputies worked as School Resource Officers (SROs) during the school year and patrolled River access sites in the summer. We learned from the SRO deputies that most recreators want to do the right thing, but sometimes they need guidance. So, we partnered with Fish Wildlife and Parks and the Clark Fork Coalition and built out a River Ambassador program (first in the state).
The Ambassadors move between all the close-to-the-City river access points, setting folks up with the information and guidance they need to recreate conscientiously. We also put in a new parking resolution at Milltown State Park to enhance safety, and installed parking delineators and bike racks at the Maclay Bridge to tame the situation.
Together, all these efforts proved successful in calming things down a bit, and if all goes well, we will begin construction on a new parking lot this spring just up the road from Sha-Ron, to relieve the mad pressure on that site and get parking off the highway. The heavy use also hit our trailheads. We addressed the long-neglected problem on the overused and under-maintained Sawmill Gulch Road, where we partnered with the Forest Service and created a situation that works much better for homeowners and recreationists.
Given that you could now take your job anywhere, it wasn’t just tourists who found us. Everyone and their cousin, so it seemed, wanted to move here. The housing crisis reached us just like it did every high-quality-of-life place in America; as in Asheville, Bend and Bozeman, national demand for housing far out-stripped our local supply, and prices soared.
We implemented new zoning, a new code that incentivizes affordability and resource protection, and reduces the impediments to density wherever sewer, water and land make such development possible. Before the pandemic we went to DC (with partners from the City, the Chamber and the private sector) and brought back a $13M grant for sewer, water, and road grid for the Sx͏ʷtpqyén (pronounced S-wh-tip-KAYN) area between Broadway and Mullan.
That infrastructure, plus our zoning, paves the way for development to follow. Over the coming years this area will support up to 6,000 units of housing. We partnered with developers to build the Trinity apartments – 230 units of affordable housing. We also contracted with local engineering firms, we put them on-call, to help keep projects moving through our permitting process, so when we don’t have staff capacity, projects don’t hit a bottleneck. We completed a housing action plan, hired a new housing specialist, and will soon release new tools to catalyze long-term affordability of existing housing, and preserve housing for in-person workers.
Property taxes burden us all, they are too high. Our property tax system worked pretty well when multiple, large-footprint industries (mills) covered a stout portion of property taxes, our population was smaller, residential home values were low, and we had few tourists.
Many people alive today never even knew that era. Now we have 120,000 residents in Missoula County, and this year we could see 3,500,000 tourists. We subsidize the cost of services for our guests – road maintenance, emergency response, all of it. To have those folks pay some of their own way, we moved a local gas tax forward, which would have boosted the road fund and reduced the burden on property taxes.
Like many things we have done, we were the first in the state (Gallatin County and Park County though were not far behind us). Then the legislature overrode the will of our voters and took it away, after 6 months. Again, to take the burden off property taxpayers, and to allow our tourists to contribute to their costs, we brought forward a tax on recreational weed. Similarly, we have initiated an impact fee process, so property taxpayers do not have to foot the entire bill for new development’s infrastructure.
As we write, we are working with other local governments in the state to address the real costs of tourism and we’re moving new ideas forward at the legislature specifically to lower property taxes. Revenue is obviously only half of the property tax equation; spending matters a lot. We have held the line on spending to track with inflation, brought in millions of dollars in grants, and continued to focus on partnerships.
Property taxes now make up only a third of the revenue side of the County’s budget. This year we said no to millions in requests and prioritized keeping people on the job, to serve the residents of Missoula County.
All that responsiveness only covers part of what we have done. We have also been looking forward. We set ambitious climate goals, and then got busy. We installed the biggest rooftop solar array in the state at the detention center and used 3rd party financing to make it happen (another first time in the state), adding no new costs to taxpayers and paving the way for schools, and small rural governments to use the same tool.
We’ve partnered with a coalition of local governments in negotiation with Northwestern Energy to get us to our goals, and demanded, through zoning, that mega energy users like crypto-miners, make their energy renewable. Dave Strohmaier has led the formation of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, bringing red and blue counties together to contiguously link our state from west to east to restore passenger rail to the southern tier. We created a food policy board to make policy recommendations to the Board of County Commissioners and to the City on issues related to food access, land use and development and the local food economy (again, first in the state).
We made huge progress in the realm of homelessness and community mental health. At the height of the pandemic the Poverello went to half capacity, and we saw the population of folks living under the Reserve Street bridge swell to more than 100.
We used federal money to create legal, safe and sanitary places for people to be. This allows for a pair of important goals: 1.) with safety, security and services, people can move their lives forward (nearly 50% of the people who have stayed at our Temporary Safe Outdoor Space are now in housing) and 2.) with legal places for people to be, we can now enforce camping regulations on public land.
Now no one is living under the bridge. We also partnered with the City to stand up the Mobile Support Team. With MST, a paramedic and a social worker can respond to a person in crisis, freeing up both law enforcement and Emergency Department staff, and saving real money. Mobile Support resolves more than 60% of cases on-site.
There’s more, but this is not meant to get you drowsy. All of that work was the result of a team effort, a team that makes good things happen, and Dave Strohmaier is absolutely central to that team.
Dave is whip smart, thoughtful, deliberative, and unafraid. From passenger rail to increased collaboration with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to flipping the proverbial couch cushions for non-taxpayer funding sources, Dave is fiercely visionary. He is dedicated to the exemplary community we can become, and he is up for re-election. We strongly encourage you to vote for Dave Strohmaier, keep the momentum moving forward. Together we will continue pushing, listening, and taking action.
Juanita Vero and Josh Slotnick are Missoula County commissioners, though this letter represents them as individuals and not elected officials and was submitted under a gmail account.