State of Missoula: Progress on housing, enrollment, but tax issues linger
(Missoula Current) The leaders of city and county government and the University of Montana on Monday touched on the successes and challenges facing Missoula, from housing and growth to higher education and the need to retain an innovative edge.
The annual State of the Community address, hosted by City Club Missoula, carried similar themes from years past. But this year, it also presented solutions that are moving the dial in a positive direction.
For the city, Mayor Jordan Hess named housing and climate change among the top issues facing Missoula, along with a lack of mental health care and addiction services.
“That's the operating environment we're in. Those are the challenges we face,” Hess said. “But I'm fundamentally optimistic about the City of Missoula. I believe local government can be a transformative force for good in the lives of the residents we serve.”
On the housing and climate front, the city has adopted new plans and policies to address both issues. The city several years ago adopted its first housing policy, which has helped guide decisions around the delivery of housing, including affordable housing.
The city also has kicked off code reform. While it's a heavy lift and will take time to complete, Hess said it will have significant impacts on the delivery of housing by streamlining development through comprehensive codes.
“It's probably the most impactful thing we can do to improve the livability of our community and the affordability of housing for the next generation,” Hess said. “We're organizing those tools to build the tool box we need to build housing for our community's future. It will maintain our standards of quality and make sure our regulations match the needs of our community.”
Hess said the city's efforts on the climate front will net similar results. In recent months, the city has implemented policies and goals that will serve as a lens through which decisions are weighed.
“Local government for decades has been very good at looking at the financial impacts of decision making,” Hess said. “That's important and we'll continue to do that. But we haven't been very good at looking at the environmental impacts of our decisions. It's important work and it's just getting off the ground.”
The county is facing similar issues and it too has taken steps to address them. While those efforts are slightly behind the city, the county is developing a housing strategy and has directed revenue toward a housing fund.
But Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick also touched on property taxes and labeled it as among the biggest challenges facing the community. The system that's in place, he said, no longer works.
“Our tax system ought to match our economy, and there was a time when it did,” he said, adding that those days are gone.
In what Slotnick described as the old economy, Missoula was home to a number of larger industrial businesses that paid roughly 60% of all property taxes. That left home owners to cover the remaining 40%.
Back then, he added, homes were affordable and tourism was scant.
Now, many of those large industrial businesses are gone and those that remain pay 40% of the taxes while home owners now cover the other 60%. Home prices have escalated and tourism has emerged as one of the city's largest economic sectors.
However, Slotnick said, tourism doesn't pay it's “fair share” and the Legislature has been reluctant to address it with a tourist tax. But Slotnick said there's growing momentum, even among conservative counties, to consider such a tax so long as property taxes are reduced by an equal amount and tourist counties share the tax revenue with non-tourist counties.
Slotnick also said the county was working to clear the way for more housing.
“We're facing some puzzles,” he said. “When thinking about in-migration, we at the county have chosen to be expansive rather than exclusive. It's demonstrated in the BUILD Grant, the Wye and reforming of our zoning code. We're doing everything we can to make way for more housing.”
University of Montana
A decade ago, the University of Montana was facing a number of challenges, primarily due to its declining enrollment. It relinquished its status as the state's largest university and faced troubled times with layoffs and other cuts.
But university President Seth Bodnar painted a different picture of the school on Monday. Pessimism 10 years ago has led to new optimism.
“There's a lot of good stuff happening at UM right now,” Bodnar said. “It's a great time to be a Griz.”
Enrollment at UM has now grown for four strait semesters and last year saw the largest freshman class in six years. The outlook for fall is good, Bodnar said, adding that retention rates have grown 7% between first- and second-year students.
“That growth is inclusive growth,” Bodnar said. “Our Native American student enrollment is up 24% since 2018 and the retention rate is up 13%.”
The school also has achieved R1 status – the highest level – for research, and funding on that front has grown by double digits. Research creates new jobs and new businesses, which also benefit Missoula.
But Bodnar sees challenges in national trends that suggest fewer students are pursuing a college degree. If the trend continues, it could diminish the nation's standing as an innovative country developing new ideas and technology, he said.
“We all should be concerned about the numerous polls that show public confidence in higher education has been eroding for over a decade,” he said. “This is the largest national security challenge that no one is talking about. We've staked our claim as a country as an innovation-based economy. Innovation requires education. We have to address that.”