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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 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.
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.
Commissioner Nicole “Cola” Rowley announced today that she will step down from the Missoula County Commission to take a position as deputy county administrator with Gallatin County. Rowley, whose term expires at the end of 2020, will assume her new role on July 1.
“This is an amazing opportunity to further my dedication to public service for years to come,” Rowley said. “It will allow me to capitalize on my strengths and interest in data, administration and collaborative innovation. I’m excited for a new challenge and the accompanying personal and professional growth.”
Rowley is the current chair of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners. Since taking office in 2015, she has worked to bring data to the forefront of local government and is passionate about finding data-informed solutions to address issues like climate change, criminal justice reform, public health and land use planning.
“In a few short years, Cola has left an indelible impression on Missoula County government,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “Among other things, her data-driven approach to criminal justice reform has put Missoula County on the map and will position us well for realizing jail diversion efforts and fostering healthy communities. She’s smart, motivated and passionate — all attributes that will serve Gallatin County well. I look forward to collaborating across county lines, and I wish Cola the very best in her new role.”
Rowley currently serves on several boards and authorities, including the Partnership Health Center, Western Montana Mental Health Center and Missoula Aging Services boards and the Housing Policy Steering Committee. She’s also the elected chair of the Urban Counties Coalition of the Montana Association of Counties and serves on the National Association of Counties Justice and Public Safety Steering Committee.
“Cola’s encyclopedic understanding of local government, focus on data-driven solutions and commitment to an equitable future have made her an effective elected official,” Commissioner Josh Slotnick said. “I have appreciated Cola’s openness and willingness to pass on her knowledge, as she has been a great help to me as well as the county. Our loss is indeed Gallatin County’s gain.”
With Rowley leaving before her term expires, an appointee will fill her seat upon her departure. Pursuant to Montana Code Annotated 7-4-2106(2), the Missoula County Democratic Central Committee will provide a list of three names to Strohmaier and Slotnick. The commissioners will decide on a process and timeline for selecting the candidate and issue an announcement when finalized.
The newly selected commissioner will carry out the remaining year and half of Rowley’s term and have the opportunity to run for the open seat in the November 2020 election. The winner of the election will then serve the standard six-year staggered term beginning Jan. 1, 2021.
“It’s been an honor to serve Missoula County and to work with such amazing people every day, within the organization and in the community,” Rowley said. “I’m proud of the work I’ve done forwarding the redevelopment of the fairgrounds, justice system improvement, addressing climate change and resiliency planning, policy and regulatory updates and development, transparency and efficiency. Missoula County has been recognized nationally for the work we do on many fronts, and I look forward to its continued success.”
Nicole “Cola” Rowley, the current chair of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners, updated local stakeholders on four key county initiatives at the April 15 State of the Community. Rowley covered a lot of ground in her 10-minute speech, providing details on the county’s updated land use map, sustainability goals, fairground renovation plans and criminal justice initiatives.
Thank you all for coming today, and thank you to City Club for putting this on. To keep things interesting, I’m going to put slides up as I go. The County does incredibly diverse and interesting work, but since I can’t talk about it all in 10 minutes, I thought I’d update you on three things that focus on shared values and that I’m passionate about: land use planning for the growth we’re experiencing, redevelopment of the fairgrounds and improving outcomes in our justice system.
Later this week, my fellow commissioners and I will hold a hearing on the Missoula Area Mapping Project. It’s a community-driven land use planning project led by Community and Planning Services that identified the values of our communities and developed a vision for how we can get there. For more than a year, we held over a dozen public workshops, three rounds of soliciting public comment through an interactive online map, and dozens of one-on-one stakeholder and public conversations. This yielded a plan based on community input that represents new ideas on how to guide growth:
We streamlined the designations, paring down from about 60 to the 15 you see here;
We added the county’s first agricultural land use designation to preserve our intact agricultural areas;
We worked closely with the East Missoula and West Riverside communities to develop a live/make land use designation. This supports small-scale entrepreneurship and manufacturing while protecting the residential character of the neighborhoods.
The plan uses infrastructure to proactively guide growth, increase housing supply and develop walkable neighborhoods. The plan has the support of diverse groups, including both the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition and the Missoula Organization of Realtors, as well as the affected East Missoula community council, where traditional planning methods have fallen flat. Through real conversations and creativity, our staff − thank you, Andrew Hagemaier and Christine Dascenzo − achieved this broad support and came up with a plan that honors our shared values of preserving working landscapes and wilderness areas while driving opportunities like entrepreneurship and affordable housing.
Hand in hand with land use planning and growth come conversations of sustainability and resiliency around climate change. As the 2017 wildfires and resulting smoke and 2018 floods demonstrated, we’re already experiencing the impacts of climate change, and these impacts are only projected to accelerate in the coming years.
This is a picture I took in my subdivision while I was on pre-evacuation notice in the 2017 Lolo fire. It was like watching an air show as the multiple planes and helicopters flew over our front porch and doused the approaching wall of flames. It was a phenomenal sight, and my little girls, who were 2 and 5 at the time, were both fascinated and terrified by it. What’s truly terrifying though is the world they will live in if we drag our feet on addressing climate change. Thanks to our Energy Conservation and Sustainability Coordinator, Diana Maneta, the county is engaged in stakeholder-driven Climate Resiliency Planning with the City and Climate Smart Missoula, which will deepen our understanding of the local impacts of climate change that we’re clearly experiencing and develop strategies to address them.
In addition to adapting to impacts, we are doing our part to reduce our contribution to climate change. Missoula County operations emit 7,583 metric tons of CO2 equivalent every year. We have established a goal of carbon neutrality in county government operations by 2035, with an interim goal of 30 percent reduction by 2025. This would eliminate 80,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent, which is like taking 17,000 cars off the road for a year.
Together with the city, we have established a goal of 100 percent clean electricity by 2030 for the Missoula urban area. The hard part is putting that in action. A couple of weeks ago, we passed interim regulations requiring new and expanding cryptocurrency mining companies to use 100 percent new renewable energy.
Cryptocurrency mining in Missoula County is currently estimated to use as much electricity as one-third of all households in the city and county, and that simply doesn’t align with our community’s goal of mitigating climate change.
Also on the sustainability front, under the direction of our amazing Director Emily Brock, the Western Montana Fair has joined Missoula’s ZERO by FIFTY initiative to reduce 90 percent of the material sent to the landfill by 2050. Last year the fair saw 80,000 visitors and produced nearly 60 tons of trash. Moving forward, we’ll have stations set up around the fair to recycle and compost everything possible and will require all vendors to convert to compostable and recyclable materials.
For the past century, the Fairgrounds have embodied the diversity found in Missoula County itself; connecting people by bridging our rural heritage and urban vibrancy and honoring education, human connection, history and recreation.
We currently host over 500 events on the Fairgrounds every year, and we’re looking to grow the venue into a community destination as we break ground this year on what will be the home of the Missoula County Weed District and Extension Office and privately funded Missoula Insectarium. This partnership is a vital part of a stewardship and revitalization project that will bring community life to Midtown Missoula.
Another thing to look for on the grounds this year is the historic remodel of the Commercial and Culinary buildings, which are on track for a grand re-opening at this summer’s fair.
Historic plaza and concessions row
For the 2020 fair, you can expect a relocated and new concessions row, historic plaza, trails, updated exhibit space and, with any luck, new perimeter fencing that feels less like a correctional facility and more like a welcome home.
Longer term, a new Rodeo Arena will be built with seating for 3,000 spectators and improved staging areas for the animals. A new 80,000 square foot Livestock Center will be located adjacent to the Learning Center so youth enrolled in agricultural programming can easily move from classroom space to the field. This facility will be an enormous asset to livestock programming and will increase agricultural education opportunities for youth living in the urban core.
Glacier Ice Rink will eventually move toward the YMCA and will have three sheets of ice and four dedicated curling lanes. The current rink operates up to 18 hours a day with nearly 4,000 people a week during peak season. The new rink will create opportunities for year-round ice, increase available ice time, and increase participation across all programs.
It will also look a lot better. Moving it away from Malfunction Junction will improve the viewscape into the open space and newly renovated historic buildings on the grounds.
The new layout of the fairgrounds will feature 19.1 acres of green space, nearly a mile of commuter trails and an all-abilities playground, serving as a rural oasis in the middle of Missoula, actualizing a decades-long planning process involving hundreds of community members that calls on us to be stewards of this property, our heritage and of community life.
This last project I’ll talk about honors our collective values of equity, collaboration, social justice and public safety. Last year these stakeholders and others worked together to form a Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, a holistic collaborative governance structure to integrate Missoula’s many criminal justice projects, services and initiatives.
America overincarcerates people – we have 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the incarcerated population. And Montana is worse than the national average.
What’s driving it? Well, it’s certainly not simple, but among other things we decided to be “tough on crime.” This slide shows incarceration for drug offenses, going up by and order of magnitude since the 80s. But it’s a general trend; incarceration for property and violent crime have also gone up, even when overall crime rates have gone down − a national trend mirrored locally.
According to the Jail Diversion Master Plan commissioned by Sheriff McDermott, the average daily population in the Missoula County jail increased 31.4 percent between 2007 and 2015. In addition to incarcerating more people, we incarcerate them for longer: the average length of stay in the Missoula County jail increased over 50 percent between 2007 and 2015. It took a dip in 2015, but it’s currently up at about 15 days.
So we incarcerate people without addressing underlying issues, they often become criminalized by that detention, they’re released and re-offend, and they come back. There’s a lot of evidence now that, when we’re talking about non-violent offenders, the current approach doesn’t work to improve outcomes, but rather creates and perpetuates this cycle of incarceration. What is most is to hold them reasonably accountable, address the underlying issues driving their criminality, and allow them the opportunity to become productive members of society. Simply put, we need to stop trying to address public health issues in the criminal justice system.
This slide lists some of the justice improvement efforts I’ve been personally involved in since taking office in 2015. There are certainly more; for example, County Attorney Kirsten Pabst has received national awards for her work in addressing secondary trauma in her team.
It’s important to keep in mind that these efforts focus on social justice and low-level crimes often driven by mental health and substance abuse issues; but our teams are dealing with multiple double homicides and truly disturbing crimes, and it takes a toll on everyone involved. Those crimes and criminals are not who we are talking about with these efforts. For these efforts addressing non-violent crimes, we also have received national recognition from, among others, the National Association of Counties and the National Conference of State Legislatures, who’s bringing legislators from around the country here this spring to see what system reform can look like in a small jurisdiction. They’re finding that the evidence-based models developed in large metropolitan areas are not effective in rural areas, and two-thirds of all counties in America qualify as rural. There’s a national conversation about finding more appropriate, scalable models, and Missoula County is at the forefront.
These are just a few of the initiatives going on at Missoula County that make me proud to be a commissioner and honored to work with an incredible team to serve all of you.