State of the Community 2019: Commission chair highlights key initiatives in Missoula County

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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.

Read Commissioner Rowley’s full speech, and let us know your thoughts by commenting below or emailing communications@missoulacounty.us.

2019 State of the Community

Commissioner Nicole “Cola” Rowley, chair

Board of County Commissioners

Rowley headshot

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.

Land use mapLater 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.

Fire and floodThis 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.

 

Greenhouse gas inventoryIn 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.

 

Climate targetsTogether 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.

 

CryptocurrencyCryptocurrency 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.

 

FairAlso 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.

 

 

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Missoula County Weed District and Extension Office and privately funded Missoula Insectarium

 

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.

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Renovations underway on the Commercial and Culinary buildings

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

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.

Rodeo arena
Rodeo arena

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.

Ice rink
Glacier Ice Rink

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.

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Viewscape from Malfunction Junction

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.

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Updated fairgrounds layout

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.

PartnersThis 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.

Prison population

Montana prison

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.

Drug offenses

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.

Average population

Average stayAccording 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.

Cycle of incarcerationSo 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.

We received a $700,000 MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge grant with the goal of safely reducing our jail population by 18 to 22 percent and maximizing the efficiency of public dollars, because we spend a lot of money on this system that doesn’t work optimally.  And so we all benefit from this effort, both financially and through increased community health and resiliency.

Timeline newThis 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.

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Missoula County Budget in Brief: A primer on where your tax dollars go

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You receive your tax bill from us each year, but do you ever wonder what the taxes you pay to Missoula County help fund? Then be sure to check out the fiscal year 2019 Budget in Brief, our annual publication breaking down the various aspects of the county budget process.

From calculating property taxes, revenue and expenditures to highlighting the services, capital projects, and voter-approved levies and bonds taxes will fund, the Budget in Brief demonstrates how the county aims to be a responsible steward of our constituents’ dollars.

While property taxes aren’t the sole source of revenue for the county, they do make up the largest share. Elected officials and staff want to make sure they’re being put toward protecting and enhancing the quality of life we enjoy here in Missoula County. The Budget in Brief is an opportunity for taxpayers to review and understand the process so they can more effectively weigh in on this mission.

Think there’s room for improvement? Stay tuned for more details on how you can get involved in the FY 2020 budget process, which will kick off this spring. Once finalized, we’ll publish more information and a schedule of public budget meetings on this blog.

Take precautions to prevent fast-melting snow from damaging your home

Spring-like weather
PHOTO: National Weather Service in Missoula

With temperatures expected to climb into the mid-50s next week (😲), the heavy snow that blanketed Missoula County throughout February will likely start to melt, and melt fast. You may not live in a floodplain, but your home could still be susceptible to flooding caused by rapid snow melt. And even if your home doesn’t flood, snow melt can lead to other problems, such as water damage and mold.

With spring* weather right around the corner, this weekend is a great time to prepare your property. The Missoula County Office of Emergency Management has compiled a few tips to help homeowners prevent problems caused by rapid snow melt:

  • Shovel snow away from your home, keeping it at least 5 feet away from your foundation.
  • Clear snow and ice from drainage areas around your home’s foundation.
  • If your home is on a grade or hill, shovel snow so that it doesn’t flow toward your home when it melts.
  • Clear snow from your roof to prevent excessive buildup, which can lead to ice damage that allows melting snow to seep through your roof. Clearing the snow also prevents a significant amount of water from flowing through your gutters during a thaw.
  • Clear snow and ice from gutter downspouts. Add downspout extensions to channel melting snow away from your home.
  • Keep drainage areas around your home clear of snow and ice buildup. This ensures melting snow will drain properly and helps prevent backups.
  • Inspect basement walls for cracks. This includes caulking around windows, too. Make repairs as necessary to prevent water from entering your basement.
  • Remove snow from the window wells around your house.
  • Test your basement sump pump now, before all the snow melts.
  • Never ignore water in your basement. Investigate and repair the source as soon as possible. If you have water in your basement or a flood from melting snow, dry and clean the area as quickly as possible.

And, while we’re talking about preparedness … have you signed up for Smart 911 yet? The Office of Emergency Management encourages all Missoula County residents to register for this free service, which will deliver timely, location-specific alerts to help keep you and your family safe during an emergency. Head to www.smart911.com or download the app!

*By Montana standards

Commissioner Rowley heads to D.C. to take on criminal justice reform

Capitol

Current Missoula County Commission Chair Nicole “Cola” Rowley is headed to Washington, D.C., to continue her important work on law and justice issues, this time on a national stage.

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Commissioner Rowley

Earlier this year, the National Association of Counties named Cola to its Justice and Public Safety Policy Steering Committee, and she boarded a plane Friday morning to make her way to NACo’s annual Legislative Conference in the nation’s capital. At the conference, she’ll join county representatives from across the country to help inform NACo policy and advocacy in the realm of law enforcement, courts, corrections, homeland security, community crime prevention, juvenile justice and delinquency prevention, emergency management, fire prevention and control, and civil disturbances. She’ll also participate in a panel discussion on “Connecting Federal and County Systems of Care,” which will highlight county efforts to improve child, adult and family outcomes through local health and human services integration models and the collaboration needed among local, state and federal entities to make that happen.

“Missoula County has been a leader in the state when it comes to criminal justice reform, and it’s rewarding to know the hard work of so many people will now spur discussion and strategy at a higher level,” Cola says. “I’m excited for this opportunity to continue to expand my knowledge on innovative, evidence-based best practices and be involved in justice systems policy nationally.”

MCDF housing door
Door to a housing unit at the Missoula County Detention Facility

The list of qualifications that earned Cola this role is impressive. She’s engaged in criminal justice analysis and improvement since she took office in 2015, collaborating with county departments, partner jurisdictions, nonprofits and other agencies to address inequalities in local systems. Her efforts include:

  • Partnering with Sheriff T.J. McDermott to apply for and receive a grant from the Policy Innovation Lab at the Sorensen Impact Center to study the feasibility of implementing a Pay for Success financing model to address overcrowding at the Missoula County Detention Facility.
  • Engaging Missoula County in the Stepping Up Initiative, a national movement to reduce incarceration of mentally ill individuals. This included successfully applying to bring a team, which included staff from the Sheriff’s Office, County Attorney’s Office and the Western Montana Mental Health Center, to Washington, D.C., for planning and technical assistance to address the issue. Rowley was later invited to speak at the 2016 National Stepping Up Summit.
  • Coordinating implementation of many recommendations in the city-county Jail Diversion Master Plan, adopted in 2016. Jail diversion efforts helped the county land two MacArthur Foundation grants in recent years: $50,000 in 2017 for the Native Outreach Project to address over-incarceration of Native Americans, and $700,000 in 2018 for the Safety and Justice Challenge, an over-arching, data-driven justice improvement effort.
  • Facilitating formation of the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a collaborative, cross-jurisdictional governance structure that oversees more than two dozen justice system projects, services and initiatives in Missoula.
  • Helping launch the Kindness, Elegance and Love Project (KELP), a novel collaborative effort at Partnership Health Center that aims to more effectively funnel parents involved in dependent-neglect cases to appropriate services and support. The project was one of four in the country selected for NACo’s Cross-Systems Partnerships Leadership Lab, which helps counties improve the social, health and economic outcomes of populations involved in the justice system.

You can learn more about the county’s initiatives in criminal justice reform on the Missoula County website. More details on the Justice and Public Safety Steering Committee are also online.

Q and A with new Commissioner Josh Slotnick

Josh Slotnick hit the ground running as Missoula County’s newest commissioner at the beginning of the year. He took a break from his busy schedule to answer a few questions about his experience so far and what he hopes to accomplish in the future.

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Josh Slotnick

Why did you want to run for public office?

I came here 30 odd years ago, to go to college and quickly fell for Missoula. Every time I left, I ended up coming back, and I came back because of Missoula’s special combination of landscape and culture. We’re straight up not like everywhere else, we’re better. Eventually, the greater world found that out, and with our popularity has come ever more vexing challenges. We’ve seen mad growth and a concurrent rise in housing costs and development pressure, and an intensifying of use of some of our most fragile and loved places. While we’re busy wrestling with all that, our climate has become ever more volatile, and smoke, fire and floods are now nearly seasons unto themselves. In the face of these challenges we must be tremendously thoughtful in how we set the stage for the future. I want to help make sure the next wave of people who come here have the same opportunity I did to fall for this place and build a life. Given my deep commitment to Missoula, the position my last workplace afforded me, and the skills I’ve picked up from decades of community work, I feel a sense of obligation to service.  I also have one more big chapter’s worth of energy to give. I added all that up and it equaled running for office and working with the county.

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

I listen a lot. The BCC meets with staff to do the peoples’ business, and often this means talking through thorny, complicated issues and making decisions, and sometimes it’s the perfunctory workings of local government. The diversity of issues before us reflects the diversity of concerns in life here, and that makes for interesting, if not sometimes information-stuffed, days.

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

Planning for future development – that means considering affordable housing, preservation of natural resources, transportation and resiliency in the face of climate change in how we make all planning decisions. The growth I mentioned earlier has not brought everyone along; we must care for those left behind and work to make sure we all have a solid chance. We must also continue to protect and enhance the cultural amenities that make this place what it is. Our economic development depends up on our character and landscape. In this way economics, job creation and our general vibrancy are knit tightly to how well we care for this place and each other.

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

I would like to be part of the following:

  • Real, tangible and practical steps towards remedying our housing crisis.
  • Bringing zoning and subdivision regulations in line with the land use map we’re in the process of updating and making possible conservation development where we construct needed housing while protecting our best ag soils and most vulnerable landscapes.
  • Real efforts to make decentralized renewable energy production a possibility for residents of Missoula County.
  • New approaches to property taxes and revenue generation for the county.

What has surprised you most since you started your new job?

The great diversity of issues, the size and scope of the work of the county and the tremendous depth of experience and knowledge of staff.

How can Missoula County help you?

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PHOTO: Andrew Kemmis Photography

Though our operations can affect your day-to-day life, navigating county government can be confusing. After considering the input you provided through our online survey, we’ve made a few changes to our website that will help connect you to the information and services you need.

First, we streamlined our Help page to more clearly direct you to useful information. From here, you can search the site, browse frequently asked questions, locate a county building and find department contact info, among other things.

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Second, we launched a customer service request form you can use when the other options come up empty. After completing a short questionnaire and providing any additional details, your request will be forwarded to the appropriate department and reviewed within three business days. Easy peasy!

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Do you have any other suggestions on how we can better serve you? Feel free to comment below or send an email to communications@missoulacounty.us.

We look forward to helping you!

New Seeley ice rink, other county parks benefit from Matching Grants Program

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PHOTO: Betty Vanderwielen, Seeley-Swan Pathfinder

On the otherwise sleepy Saturday between Christmas and New Year’s, around 200 kiddos and their families laced up skates and took to the ice – slipping, falling and, eventually, gliding – during the grand opening of a new open-air rink in Seeley Lake.

The event served as the community’s introduction to the ice rink, which has been in the works for about a year. Located at the elementary school’s athletic fields, it’ll provide a new way for families and others to get out and about during long Montana winters.

“Kids here don’t have as much opportunity to be active during the winter months,” says Garry Swain, a board member of the Regional Outdoor Center for Kinetic Sports (ROCKS), which spearheaded the project. “This gives them another outlet to get down there and just have a ball, for free.”

The rink will be open during daylight hours, with a crew of volunteers committed to keeping the ice clear and flooding the rink to smooth it over whenever necessary. ROCKS also keeps about 40 pairs of skates in various sizes at the rink, free for anyone to borrow.

The organization, which provided $7,000 in seed money to kick-start the project, was able to put the finishing touches on the rink, including purchasing a snow blower to help clear the ice, thanks to a $10,000 matching grant awarded by the Missoula County Parks and Trails Advisory Board.

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PHOTO: Betty Vanderwielen, Seeley-Swan Pathfinder

The Parks and Trails Matching Grants Program leverages partnerships with local nonprofits and community groups to maintain county parks and other public recreation areas. In these partnerships, the Parks and Trails Advisory Board provides planning assistance and funding, while the partner organization matches those funds through a combination of project expenses, in-kind donations and volunteer service hours.

Four other grants, which range from $1,500 to $12,000, will help fund critical capital and maintenance projects to improve parks, trails and recreation areas  in 2019:

  • $1,500 to perform maintenance on the playground and double tennis courts located in Seeley Lake Community Park (Sponsoring organization: Seeley Lake Elementary School District No. 34)
  • $12,000 to install wayfinding markers, benches and/or tables, and finance placement of portalets along the Bitterroot Trail (Bitterroot Trail Preservation Alliance)
  • $4,500 to apply weed and feed lawn treatments and install an irrigation system for the play area east of the barn at Hellgate Lions Park in Bonner (Friends of 2 Rivers)
  • $8,800 for general maintenance of East Missoula Lions Park (East Missoula Lions Club)

“Awarding the matching grants is always an exciting time of year, because we get to see what types of recreation projects county residents are prioritizing,” said Parks and Trails Coordinator John Stegmaier. “It is truly remarkable what our community partners are able to achieve through the use of these matching funds.”

Is there a park or other public recreation site in your area in need of a little TLC? The Parks and Trails Matching Grant Program could help! Applications typically become available in late August, with a mid-October deadline. You can find more details on the ins and outs of applying on the Parks and Trails website. (A quick note: Only sites outside the City of Missoula are eligible for these grants.)

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PHOTO: Betty Vanderwielen, Seeley-Swan Pathfinder