Q and A with new Commissioner Juanita Vero

Juanita Vero

Commissioner Juanita Vero started her new job in July after Commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Josh Slotnick appointed her to fill the remainder of Nicole Rowley’s term, which runs through the end of 2020. Vero, a fourth-generation partner of the E Bar L Ranch in Greenough, plans to run for the open seat in the November 2020 election.

“Juan,” as she’s known around the office, took a break from her busy schedule to answer a few questions about her experience so far and what she hopes to accomplish in the future.

Why did you want to serve as a commissioner?

I don’t think many folks say, “I want to be a county commissioner.” I’m from a rural part of the county and there’s not always a lot of trust in government. In fact, I can think of numerous times I’ve told people, “Man, there’s no way I’d want to be a county commissioner … they just get chaffed coming and going, trying to serve unsatisfied citizens with limited resources. No one is ever pleased with you.”

The reason I changed my attitude is that I was asked to consider the position by some folks I respect. I had a contemplative birthday weekend in Recluse, Wyoming, and took stock of the years I’d spent serving on various nonprofit boards and committees focused on natural resource, community-based conservation. I have a deep love for Missoula County, its complexities and contradictions, and realized I had the capacity to have a positive impact so I shouldn’t squander it. My high school motto is Not ut sibi ministretur sed ut ministret or “Not to be served but to serve.”

What does a typical day look like for you so far?

We take an impressive number of back to back meetings, both standing and scheduled, from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., with some evening obligations, such as community events or public meetings. Generally, the day is a whirlwind of staff reports or presentations from various county departments or organizations from across the county, field tours, and, of course, public hearings. I joke that one could get a concussion merely sitting through a day of meetings — one minute we’re discussing paving rollers and pavement recipes, the next it’s early detection of autism for children under 5, a building in this department has boiler or HVAC issues, this riparian corridor should be protected, that building needs a new roof, and oh, there’s illegal camping going on in a right-of-way and what are we to do about folks who are working but forced to live in their cars, and this developer needs a variance on fire code because of new building design, someone vandalized Fort Missoula Historical Museum, this staff member is retiring or promoted and it will take two new hires to do the job, Seeley Lake needs a sewer, and, yes, we need to figure out a budget for 118,000 people living across 2,618 square miles. I usually find myself back in the office in the evening when it’s quiet and I have a chance to process what happened that day and catch up on email.

 What do you think are the most pressing issues facing Missoula County?

This isn’t very sexy, but it’s our taxing structure — that we rely so heavily on property taxes to fund all the important and necessary services that make Missoula County a great place to live is problematic. It’s also a blow that revenue from other sources has steadily declined, whether it’s due to state and federal cuts to social services, decreases in PILT money (payment in lieu of taxes we receive for government-owned property in the county) or insufficient reimbursement for housing state inmates at our county jail.

Another challenge is balancing growth while preserving our collective senses of place. Change is hard, and everyone in Missoula County − urban, rural and in the “doughnut” − identify with the ground, the landscape and the people around them in their corner of the county. Adding 20,000 people over the next couple of decades and seeing new things pop up in our old haunts can feel disorienting. County leadership can help set the tone in how we navigate that and how people might feel about it at the end of the day.

What are some of your goals for your first year in office?

I don’t consider myself a politician, and I find it rather presumptuous to roll into a new position, a new culture and start making grand gestures. I’m reminded of a wilderness first responder maxim, “before doing anything, survey the scene.” I had an instructor who recommended taking the time to eat a Snickers bar — and observe what was going on — before administering aid. My goal for the coming year is to eat that Snickers bar, to listen, learn and absorb as much as possible and ultimately create the space or conditions for staff to feel empowered to do their best work and for citizens to feel heard and able to create the community in which they want to live. I’m honored to be part of this commission. We won’t always agree, but I’m very excited to be working alongside Commissioners Strohmaier and Slotnick.

What has surprised you most since starting your new job?

I’ve never worked indoors in an air-conditioned office before. It takes a bit of getting used to. In all seriousness, I wasn’t expecting to fall in love every day with the people (citizens and staff) of Missoula County. Even those who are upset with us impress me with how much they care and are trying to do what’s right for their families and their community. We are incredibly fortunate to live here, and if any place can grapple with sticky issues, Missoula County can.

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Now is the time to weigh in on the Missoula County budget

Revenues

Missoula County has released its preliminary budget for fiscal year 2020, and now commissioners want to hear from you.

To review the budget, head to http://missoula.co/budgets. There, you can access:

  • The preliminary, aka sustainment, budget. This budget reflects what it will cost to sustain current county operations. The sustainment budget factors in any increases in employee wages, benefits, utility costs, etc., that the county will experience in the coming fiscal year.
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    The sustainment budget is based on last year’s revenue. (Read How Missoula County calculates expenditures and revenues to understand why the county is using last year’s revenue to build this year’s budget.)

    Expenditures
    At first glance, it may look like the county’s expenditures will exceed revenue by $16.4 million, but that’s not the case. The reason revenue appears to be $16.4 million less than expenditures in FY20 is because the revenue needed to complete construction of the new Missoula Public Library was received in FY19 after the county issued voter-approved bonds to finance the project. The $27.5 million in bond revenue was placed in a construction reserve account (a savings account, basically) and is used to pay construction invoices each month. The county had approximately $18.8 million in that reserve account at the beginning the FY20, which will cover the cost to finish building the library by the end of the fiscal year (June 2020). So even though the county won’t receive that revenue in FY20, we have the money on hand to cover those expenses in FY20.

    As it currently stands, the county will need an additional $1.1 million to sustain current operations this year, when basing the budget on last year’s revenue. Once the county receives certified taxable values from the state Department of Revenue in August, we’ll adjust the budget to more accurately reflect how expenditures compare to revenues.

  • The list of budget requests that departments are asking for to enhance services and improve current operations by adding new staff, technology or equipment. Approved requests would add to the $1.1. million already needed to sustain operations and services as-is. (County staff are working to compile descriptions of these requests and will post those online as well.)
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    The commissioners have yet to make any decisions on which requests to fund. This is where you come in: The commissioners want to hear from taxpayers on what you think their priorities should be when considering these requests.

You can comment by:

  • Calling the Commissioners’ Office at 406-258-4877
  • Emailing bcc@missoulacounty.us
  • Mailing comments to the Commissioners’ Office, 200 W. Broadway St., Missoula, MT 59802.
  • Attending any public meeting, which are listed online at http://missoula.co/bccmeetings.

After considering public comment and weighing priorities, the commissioners will vote to approve or deny each request, which will be reflected in the final budget presented at the public hearing at 2 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 22, in the Sophie Moiese Room in the Courthouse Annex, 200 W. Broadway. If you don’t get your comments in by then, you can attend the hearing and make your voice heard.

After they consider additional public comment received at the Aug. 22 hearing, the commissioners will vote to adopt the final budget at their administrative public meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 4. That meeting will take place at 10 a.m. in Room 206 of the Missoula County Administrative Building, located at 199 W. Pine St. in Missoula.

Additional Missoula County budget resources:

2019 Budget in Brief
Video Tutorial: How to Look Up Your Property Taxes Online
Commissioners’ schedule
Commissioners’ meeting minutes and agenda portal 

Get Smoke Ready ahead of wildfire season

Smoke

This is the first in a short series of posts by Sarah Coefield, Missoula City-County Health Department air quality specialist, about becoming a smoke-ready community. Stay tuned as we prepare for wildfire season!

Oh, hey! It’s suddenly summer! Have you bought a new HEPA filter, yet?

That was one long, cold slog through spring, but summer has finally arrived, and we can get started on our summer to-do list: get outside and grill delicious foods, spend time on the river, hike in the mountains, enjoy the extra hours of daylight, and make a plan for creating cleaner air spaces in homes and businesses before wildfire season hits!

That’s right, folks. There’s lightning in the hills and we’ve got smoke on the brain.  It’s time to become Smoke Ready. (It’s capitalized so you know it’s important.)

Wildfires in our region typically start in mid-July or August, and the clock’s ticking for getting ahead of summer wildfire smoke. Over the next couple weeks, I’ll be sending out some helpful information for preparing for this year’s wildfire season.  Now, the good news is we’re not supposed to have an extreme wildfire season in western Montana this year.  It’s supposed to be an average fire year and a potentially cooler and wetter summer than we typically see. (And yeah, that feels right.  I, for one, greatly resented turning my heat on in June.) Keep in mind, though, that 2017 was *supposed* to be an average fire year.  Also, know who’s predicted to have a bad fire year? Washington.  And who’s sent us some of our worst out-of-state smoke? Also, Washington.  And who’s already had a large grass fire year? Again, Washington. The point being, even if we avoid local fires (and that’s a big if), there will likely be smoke this summer.  I mean, Canada’s been on fire for over a month now. Overachievers, the lot of them.

Wildfire smoke is nasty business.  It’s composed of a veritable stew of chemicals and fine particulate matter.  Most of the growing field of wildfire smoke health research has focused on the particulate matter in smoke, and really, there’s no good news there.  The fine particulate matter in wildfire smoke is super tiny (typically less than 1 micron in diameter), and it can bypass all your natural defenses to get deep into your lungs and even enter your bloodstream where it sets off an inflammatory response.  The pollutant is particularly harmful to infants, children, pregnant women, the elderly and anyone with heart or lung disease. It’s also just bad for everyone, particularly if you’re stuck in it for days or weeks at a time.  Folks who are sensitive to the smoke are most likely to experience respiratory effects such as worsening asthma attacks or difficulty breathing.  There’s also an increased risk of heart attacks and stroke for those with heart conditions.  The increased frequency of long duration wildfire smoke events is a relatively new phenomenon, so we don’t yet know what the long-term ramifications will be for children exposed to smoke. We do know from a study in California that young children (ages 0-4) had a greater spike in asthma-related emergency department visits during a 2007 wildfire than any other age group.

Also, have you noticed how everyone just starts to feel crummy when smoke drags on?  When you’re in wildfire smoke for a prolonged period your body goes on the offensive.  An inflammatory response is really your body trying to get rid of an invader.  The strategy works pretty well when the invader is biological (such as a virus), but it’s less effective against particulate matter. Exposure to fine particulate matter essentially sets in motion a prolonged immunological response.* You feel crummy when you have a cold because your body is fighting off the invader. It’s basically the same thing with smoke (albeit with less mucus). Unfortunately, despite your body’s efforts, the most effective way to really get better is to get out of the smoke.

Happily, we know how to get out of the smoke! Or, more accurately, get the smoke out of our breathing space.  Unfortunately, just going inside isn’t necessarily going to cut it.  You know how the super tiny fine particulate matter can get into your bloodstream? It can get into buildings, too. The best way to make sure your indoor air is cleaner than the outdoor air is to actively filter out the fine particulate matter.  Now, the good news is the technology to filter fine particulate matter exists.  This isn’t an unknown realm or impossible task. It takes some planning and an investment in good filters, but most people will be able to create cleaner indoor air when wildfire smoke rolls into town.

I’ll take you into the weeds of creating cleaner indoor air spaces over the next couple weeks. We will go over picking out and using portable air cleaners (PACs) with true HEPA filters, the dos and don’ts of using your central air system to clean the air, some practical considerations for dealing with heat, air conditioners and wildfire smoke, and what we know about creating cleaner indoor air in large buildings.

(If you caught this series last summer, some of the material will seem awfully familiar.  Also, I’m assuming you dutifully went out and secured PACs to create a cleaner air room in your home or bought a better HVAC filter for your central air system last year.  If so, don’t forget to stock up on new filters for the 2019 wildfire season!)

Also, if you don’t want to wait for my next update, head on over to www.montanawildfiresmoke.org for some great tips on preparing for wildfire season!

*With thanks to Sarah Henderson of the British Columbia Center for Disease Control for that explanation of why we all feel miserable in the smoke.  Sarah Henderson is one of my wildfire smoke heroes.  And yes, that’s a thing. There are some super rad, passionate scientists working to advance wildfire smoke science. Also, it’s nice to know that Canada sends us excellent science along with all the wildfire smoke.

Why can’t commissioners ban fireworks? The difference between county and city government

Fireworks

One of the most common requests constituents ask of commissioners is if they will consider enacting various ordinances addressing issues throughout the county.

A frequent example tends to pop up this time of year, when commissioners start fielding requests to implement an ordinance banning residents from lighting fireworks on private property in the county, like the city does.

While commissioners themselves may support the idea behind suggested ordinances, here’s the catch: Unlike municipalities, such as the City of Missoula, county government is a general powers government. This means commissioners cannot enact specific ordinances or laws unless the state has explicitly granted them the power to do so.

On the other hand, a municipality with a self-governing charter, like Missoula and most other cities in Montana, can enact ordinances as long as doing so is “not expressly prohibited by the Montana constitution, state law or its charter.”

For Missoula County to ban fireworks, the Montana Legislature would need to pass, and the governor would need to sign, a bill granting counties the authority to ban fireworks. But since it has a charter providing for self-governing powers, the City of Missoula can ban fireworks all it wants, unless the Legislature passes a bill barring municipalities from prohibiting fireworks. Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and the county can prohibit lighting fireworks on private property when the risk of forest fires warrants it. The county also can prohibit lighting off fireworks on county property, including county parks and recreation areas.

Counties in Montana were originally established as an extension of state government, when distance and geography significantly hindered the state’s ability to conduct business effectively. Today, counties still administer many roles on behalf of the state (think vehicle titling and registration, elections, criminal prosecution, etc.). For their role in this, commissioners essentially serve as the executive branch of the state, enforcing state laws and providing the system of check and balances enshrined in our bedrock governing documents.

What can county commissioners do, then?

Per MCA 7-3-401, “all legislative, executive and administrative powers and duties of the local government not specifically reserved by law or ordinance to other elected officials reside in the commission.”

In Missoula County, this means commissioners can:

  • Approve county contracts, employee agreements and grants
  • Review, adjust and approve all department budgets to fund county priorities. The approved budget is a major factor in determining the amount of tax revenue the county will need to fund operations.
  • Vote to put citizen-driven initiatives on the ballot
  • Pass resolutions that set county priorities and direct staff efforts, such as the resolution to attain carbon neutrality in county operations by 2035. Resolutions can also address imminent threats to public safety or health, such as those declaring a state of emergency amid flooding, wildfires or other natural disasters.
  • Direct staff to develop and implement county guidance documents, such as the Jail Diversion Master Plan and the Community Wildfire Protection Plan. Commissioners also must vote to adopt these plans before they can be implemented.
  • Create and enforce zoning regulations dictating what sort of development can occur in an area
  • Create separate taxing districts to encourage development or fund public infrastructure and services in a specific area of the county. These most often occur in the form of Tax Increment Finance Districts (TIFs), Targeted Economic Development Districts (TEDDs) and Rural Special Improvement Districts (RSIDs).
  • Advise the City-County Health Board on creating and enforcing health codes that protect public health and the natural environment
  • Create and enforce subdivision regulations
  • Appoint community members to serve on advisory and governing boards

What is a constituent to do then if they see a need for a law or ordinance outside city limits? Your best bet is to take it up with your state representative and senator. They can pursue legislation in Helena granting counties the power to create and enforce a specific ordinance.

Or, you can vote in favor of a conducting a local government study, which could include consideration of a charter granting the county self-governing powers. This constitutionally mandated resolution appears on the ballot every 10 years to provide flexibility and accountability for local government in Montana. (You can read more about the last time Missoula County conducted a local government study, in the mid-2000s, in the Missoulian archives.)

If you want to go that route though, you’ll have to be patient – residents voted down the measure in 2014, and it won’t appear on the ballot again until 2024.

What other questions do you have about county government? Comment here, and we’ll answer them in future posts.

Juanita Vero named new Missoula County commissioner

Juanita Vero
Juanita Vero

Missoula County Commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Josh Slotnick voted Thursday to appoint Juanita Vero to fill the remainder of Commissioner Nicole Rowley’s term.

Vero, a fourth-generation partner of the E Bar L Ranch in Greenough, will be sworn into office on Monday, July 1. She’ll carry out the remainder of Rowley’s term, which runs through Dec. 31, 2020. She’ll have the opportunity to run for the open seat in the November 2020 election. The winner of that election will then serve the standard six-year staggered term beginning Jan. 1, 2021.

“I believe we need to make a decision that takes into account rural representation on the commission,” Commissioner Strohmaier said. “It’s critically important to recognize that the lived experience and the connections someone might have who has deep roots in a rural area will be different than those same sorts of connections and roots that you might have if you’re living in an urban area. With all that said, I will support Juanita Vero as my choice to serve as replacement for Commissioner Rowley.”

Commissioner Slotnick echoed that sentiment about Vero’s rural roots while also noting the overall caliber of the three candidates. The commissioners also considered Stacie Anderson and Denver Henderson to fill the role.

“We in Missoula County are thoroughly fortunate to have these three people living within our midst,” he said. “All three of them have dedicated their work lives, and outside-of-work lives, to the betterment of our community.”

In addition to running her family business, Vero has served on numerous boards and committees, including as chair of the Montana Conservation Voters, the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited, the Missoula County Open Lands Committee and the Sunset School Board.

Rowley announced this spring that she will vacate her seat early to take a position as deputy county administrator for Gallatin County. Pursuant to Montana Code Annotated 7-4-2106(2), the Missoula County Democratic Central Committee provided a list of three candidates for Strohmaier and Slotnick to consider.

Vero will earn an annual salary of $89,980.80 as commissioner.

Surprised by your property appraisal? Here are your options

DOR cropped

Did you recently receive this document in the mail?

This is not a tax bill from Missoula County. It’s an appraisal notice issued by the Montana Department of Revenue showing the current assessed value of your property. DOR appraises the value of real property every two years, so the value listed on your form applies to tax years 2019 and 2020. The state DOR, not the county, calculates this value, which is a key factor in determining the property taxes you’ll owe this year. Those property taxes help fund several taxing jurisdictions you live in, including the county.

DOR logo

Many Missoula County residents are experiencing sticker shock upon opening their notices. If you feel the assessed value on your property is inaccurate, you can appeal it during a 30-day window from June 18 through July 18. Do not wait until you receive your tax bill in October – it will be too late!

You can start this process in one of two ways:

If you miss the July 18 deadline, you can still appeal the assessment until June 1, 2020. But if you wait until then to appeal, any changes to your assessment would only apply to tax year 2020, not the 2019 tax bill you’ll receive this fall.

It’s also important to note that the estimated taxes listed on the notice do not include special assessments. Special assessments are determined by the location of your property, i.e., if you live in a certain school, fire, water quality or other special district. You can view the special assessments that will be levied on your property by downloading your current tax bill on the Missoula County iTax website.

Still have questions about your appraisal notice? Contact a DOR property assessment field office to talk to an appraiser.

Missoula County launches website to help homeowners with permits

Steps screencap

With the summer construction season underway, Missoula County has launched a new website to guide homeowners through the process of applying for permits they’ll likely need for new construction and other work on their home.

The website, www.missoulacounty.build, provides a step-by-step overview of the permitting process. It’s aimed at property owners who live in Missoula County but outside City of Missoula limits (city dwellers should check out the city’s permitting website instead). While the site mainly targets homeowners looking to apply for permits, it includes some helpful tips for contractors as well.

Missoula County requires permits for many types of work residents may want done on their property. Permits ensure work is done safely and complies with local, state and international building codes.

In the past, the steps required to secure these permits have not always been clear, making the process seem confusing and cumbersome. Because information on permitting was previously scattered across separate department websites, applicants often didn’t know where to start. www.missoulacounty.build is a one-stop virtual shop that simplifies information from the three departments that issue building-related permits: Public Works Building Division, Community and Planning Services, and the City-County Health Department.

Other key features of the website include:

  • Property Fast Facts, a report generated through the county’s property information system. Property owners simply need to enter their address, and the system will produce a report that includes information such as zoning, current permits, whether the property is in the city or the county, and other facts that are useful when applying for permits.
  • Lists that outline common projects that require, or don’t require, permits.
  • A breakdown of fees associated with each permit and how they’re calculated.
  • A glossary defining key terms used throughout the website that the homeowners may not be familiar with.
  • An FAQ that answers commonly asked questions homeowners have about permits.
  • Important reminders about the process throughout that will help eliminate surprises later.

Important reminder

The goal of the website is to simplify permitting information so homeowners can successfully apply on their own, or feel more informed if they need to call or visit a permitting department. If you have a home improvement project in the works, be sure to check it out. You can offer suggestions on how we can make it better by emailing permitWSP@missoulacounty.us.