Martin Kidston

(Missoula Current) When voters across Missoula head to the polls next November, they'll be asked to elect a mayor to finish the final two years of late Mayor John Engen's term.

While a number of candidates are likely to emerge over the coming months, current City Council member Mike Nugent already has tossed his hat into the ring with an official announcement that came this week.

Nugent, a small business owner and president of the United Way of Missoula County's board of directors, believes housing tops the list of issues that must be resolved. Whether it's deed-restricted or market-rate housing, Nugent said the shortage of inventory threatens to undermine the city's economic wellbeing.

“If people don't have places to live, every other problem compounds itself,” Nugent told the Missoula Current. “If we don't do something very soon, we're on the path to becoming a community so divided by haves and have-nots that it's not going to look like the Missoula we know and love today.”

In recent years, Missoula has made strides in boosting wages for workers and attracting new companies that pay solid wages. The tech sector is growing and the healthcare industry remains strong, but even those who earn good pay are struggling to find a place to live.

The city is only as strong as its greatest vulnerability, Nugent said.

“The housing issue is real a problem. There are businesses that cannot hire people because there's not enough workers who can afford to live here to fill those jobs,” Nugent said. “There are professional, high-level, six-figure positions that have been offered in this community but were turned down because those candidates were concerned about housing costs or couldn't even find a house. We need to recognize that Missoula is growing at a rate every year, and we need to be ready and address for that.”

The city this week kicked off an effort to reform zoning and building codes to bring Missoula's Growth Policy in line with regulations that guide development. The process will take years to complete but when it's finished, it should give developers the guidance they need to invest with confidence and residents more predictability over what to expect.

As it stands, however, current projects have been considered on a case-by-case basis, and they've received various levels of scrutiny from members of City Council. In nearly all cases, they've also received push-back from residents reluctant to see change brought to their neighborhoods.

The result has created growing frustration on all fronts.

“We acknowledge that we need housing and yet when anyone says they want to help with it, the community reaction is often one that's less than excited,” Nugent said. “The people who are helping us build the housing need to feel they can understand the process, and walk in and understand what's expected of them and what's not expected, or what's not okay.”

Creating an environment of clarity and predictability lies at the heart of code reform. It's there where Nugent sees an opportunity to set a positive tone for development moving forward.

A large affordable housing project under construction off Scott Street. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)
A large affordable housing project under construction off Scott Street. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)

“I'd like to see it result in a code that's clean and easy to understand, whether you're a housing expert or a regular resident of Missoula looking to build an ADU,” Nugent said. “The more complicate a code is, the more likely the process is going to frustrate people. I want to be a mayor that's known to solve problems and work with people to find solutions, so there's no idea that's too big for us to tackle and look for ways to get there.”

Other issues on the table

While housing is likely to remain a topic of conversation and debate, other issues are also on the table, including taxes and services for the city's most vulnerable residents.

In November, voters opposed a crisis services levy that would have generated around $5 million annually to address an array of issues, from mental health to homelessness. The levy's failure left officials questioning how they'll solve for such issues moving forward given the lack of funding, and it's not a conversation that's likely to vanish.

“There were so many different services that hoped to be helped and touched by the levy that it became too complicated to follow,” Nugent said. “I also think that what the average Missoulian sees as the homeless issue doesn't really match what the real issue is.”

Nugent believes the next opportunity may lie in how the city, county and advocates of such services phrase the conversation. As it stands, he said more than 200 children in the Missoula school system are either homeless or at risk of becoming so.

Some families have lost stable housing and now rely on the services of the city's nonprofit partners. The issue goes deeper than stereotypes, Nugent said, and it will require a solution, regardless of what the failed crisis levy may or may not have suggested.

“When we talk about this, I think people sometimes fall into stereotypes in realizing that we're trying to solve a much larger problem and to help people who really are trying to help themselves get back on the right track,” Nugent said. “How we talk about that is a big part of that. One of the things we can do better as a local government is to communicate the why of what we're doing.”

But the failure of the crisis levy also suggested that Missoula residents aren't willing to pay more for certain services, or aren't capable of doing so at this point in time. Complaints about local government spending too freely aren't new, and taxation will also remain an issue moving forward.

Mike Nugent speaks with the public. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)
Mike Nugent speaks with the public. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file)

Nugent believes the city could do a better job at framing the intent of its annual budget and selection of services. But like a growing number of elected officials from both parties, he also agrees that Montana's tax system is in dire need of reform.

As it stands, city and county governments have few options other than asking property owners to fund basic services. And as the cost of those services mount, the burden to taxpayers will only grow more acute.

“At the end of the day, we have a broken tax system, and if it doesn't get fixed by the Legislature, we need to be keenly aware that we can't continue to put all this burden on our property owners,” Nugent said. “I think the residents of Missoula are interested in having a conversation on how we move forward and what's a priority and what's not a priority. That's a conversation that's probably overdue to have. We need to be sure we're doing the best we can with the services we have without stretching ourselves thin by trying to do too many things for too many people.”

Honoring equity in Missoula

But some public services are worth funding, and public transportation lies high on the list of those that Nugent supports.

With voter support, Mountain Line was able to expand services this year to later hours and seven days a week – a move Nugent described as a game changer.

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“We want to encourage development where people aren't car reliant, and we need transportation available every day for people to go and do things,” Nugent said. “That investment, that shift to having later service and service seven days a week, is the first step in really making a difference on that front.”

Yet as transportation modes change with time and technology, Nugent added that Missoula must honor the use of the automobile.

“This is Montana and a huge chunk of our population is always going to have a car,” he said. “We need to find that balance that recognizes that people do drive in this area and will need places to park. But we also need to make sure those walking and biking feel safe. It's about finding that balance.”

For the past few months, Nugent has been working to introduce a measure to City Council that would provide paid parental leave to city employees if passed. Missoula County already does so, as does the city of Bozeman.

If Missoula want's to champion equity among the many lenses through which it considers projects, helping new parents should be part of it, Nugent said.

“One of things I'd like to do as mayor is not to just have performative statements, but actually back up what we're saying by treating everyone the way we claim we want to,” Nugent said. “That includes making sure our employees feel supported and that we have an equitable parental leave where any new parent can take time off to be with that kid. It shocks me we're not there already.”