New Missoula County Election Center is now open

Missoula County Election Center
The new Missoula County Election Center is located at 140 N. Russell St. in Missoula.

Need to register to vote in Missoula County? Update your address? Sign up for an absentee ballot?

If you’ve needed any of these services over the past 10 years, it’s possible you showed up at the county courthouse on Broadway, only to find that you actually needed to head to the Election Office’s temporary location at the Missoula County Fairgrounds. That’s because a few months before each election, Elections Office staff routinely moved from their permanent location at the courthouse and set up shop at the more spacious fairgrounds so they could accommodate increased demand for voter services.

Hopefully, most people were still able to trek across town and take care of their registration. But what might be a minor inconvenience for some may be a major setback for others, especially those running on tight schedules or who rely on public transportation to get where they need to go.

And while the fairgrounds provided more space and parking, operations still had to be spread over multiple buildings. And with renovations slated to continue at the fairgrounds for several more years, this solution was becoming increasingly unsustainable. (Not to mention the thousands of dollars it cost each time to move).

Fortunately, Missoula County voters now have a year-round, one-stop shop for all their voting needs: the county’s new Election Center, located at 140 N. Russell St.

Elections staff have moved into the facility and are providing voter and election services from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. The centrally located facility will eventually provide about 200 parking spaces, and it’s accessible via Mountain Line’s Route 2 BOLT bus, which offers service every 15 minutes, and from the Milwaukee Trail, located a block south.

“We’re excited about this new, permanent location that will allow us to better serve voters,” says Dayna Causby, the county’s elections administrator. “We’re looking forward to working out of the new facility and providing the customer support that ensures everyone who’s eligible to vote can cast their ballot.”

Election services
An election staff member helps a voter at the new Election Center.

The 14,500-square-foot center, which includes the main office space and a warehouse, will also host trainings for emergency management, law enforcement and other county staff. The county will remodel the buildings to best accommodate the various uses. Renovations are projected to cost around $500,000 and slated to be complete ahead of the June 2020 primary election.

The county acquired the property from the Western Montana Mental Health Center in October for $2.78 million. In addition to renovation costs, the financing package includes the purchase of about $255,000 in elections equipment, including an additional ballot processing machine and updated elections software, bringing the total to $3.5 million.

So next time you need an election-related service, be sure to visit the friendly staff at the new Russell Street location. If you’re driving, it’s best to enter the parking lot via the entrance on Wyoming Street, just west of Prince Street.

You can contact the Elections Office by phone at 406-258-4751 or email at electioninfo@missoulacounty.us. You can also check your ward, registration status and polling place location at www.missoulavotes.com.

How do we get Missoula’s seatbelt-use rate to 100 percent?

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Photo: Pixabay

The results are in: After observing more than 5,000 vehicles in Missoula, officials with the Missoula City-County Health Department report that they saw about 92% of occupants wearing their seatbelts.

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Steve Schmidt

Steve Schmidt, senior community health specialist and Buckle Up Montana coalition coordinator for Missoula County, spent a week observing vehicles at 11 different locations in Missoula at the end of September. He says that of the 5,262 vehicles he saw, he observed 4,844 with occupants wearing their seatbelts.

This is up significantly from the 2018 survey, when only about 76% of Missoulians were observed wearing seatbelts. In 2017, the rate was 81%. This year also saw a considerable increase in seatbelt use among pickup truck occupants, from about 71% in 2018 to 86% in 2019.

Though 8% of Missoulians are still not wearing seatbelts, today’s numbers stand in stark contrast to those collected in 1987, when only 34% of vehicle occupants were observed wearing seatbelts, a spike apparently so dramatic for that year that it prompted the surveyor to draw a smiley face on the report.

Seatbelt use, then and now

So why are 8% of Missoulians still not wearing their seatbelts? And why is that rate even higher for pickup truck occupants? Though it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons, Schmidt says a variety of factors could be at play.

“I’ve occasionally come across individuals who have indicated that they have known someone who died in a crash and they were wearing their seatbelt,” he says. The seatbelt doesn’t guarantee survival − it just greatly increases the chances. And when your world is being flipped upside down, I would bet on the numbers.”

Schmidt also says he’s heard that some people who drive larger vehicles, like pickups, feel safer and don’t believe they need seatbelts. That’s why public health officials have focused over the past few years on the “Buckle Up in Your Truck” campaign. He’s happy the rate among pickup occupants is increasing, but there’s still work to do.

2019 Missoula Seatbelt Use Survey

“I believe that educating young drivers will have an impact on older drivers,” Schmidt says. “When my kids had their learner’s permits, they actually ensured I was wearing my seatbelt before they moved the vehicle. It was nice to see, and it appears to be more normalized. There doesn’t seem to be a ‘coolness factor’ in play. It’s just what we do.”

The education on seatbelt use also need to evolve, Schmidt says. The “scare tactics” of the past doesn’t seem to be as effective, and he’d like to approach seatbelt use from a different angle.

“For me, it’s about control,” he says. “We all like to be in control, and the best way to stay in control of a vehicle is to remain behind the wheel of that vehicle. A seat belt will help keep you behind the wheel, where you have the ability to control the vehicle.”

Education is just one component of increasing usage. Proactive legislation could also increase the rate. Montana is currently one of 16 states that does not have a primary seatbelt law, meaning law enforcement cannot stop someone solely for not wearing a seatbelt. They can only cite someone for not wearing a seatbelt if they initially pulled them over on suspicion of another violation.

“States with primary seatbelt laws have a higher percentage of people who wear seatbelts,” Schmidt says. “I’d love to see and work for a primary seatbelt law here in Montana.”

You can learn more about the work the Buckle Up Coalition is doing to increase seatbelt usage by visiting their website and Facebook page.

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Historical Museum at Fort Missoula joins International Coalition of Sites of Conscience

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Today, anyone who visits Fort Missoula along the city’s western edge is treated to expansive views of the mountains surrounding our vibrant community. Some visitors, though, may not realize that this idyllic setting also harbors a dark history.

From 1941 to 1944, the U.S. government interned more than 2,200 Japanese resident aliens, Italian nationals and a small number of German nationals following the country’s entry into World War II.  The Italian men were held at the Fort Missoula Alien Detention Center until Italy’s surrender in 1944. For the Japanese, Fort Missoula served as a way station while they were subjected to an enemy alien hearing board that decided whether the men were likely to be disloyal to the United States. Though none of the Japanese men were found to be disloyal, the majority were still sent from Fort Missoula to one of several War Relocation Camps across the country that held over 120,000 Japanese Americans. At Fort Missoula, both the Japanese and Italians were held in one of the 29 barracks that once occupied the fort’s eastern side.

The Historical Museum at Fort Missoula has restored several of those barracks, using them and other remnants of the era to educate the public on this important, if difficult, aspect of Western Montana history. Its newly minted membership in the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience will allow the museum to elevate this mission even further.

According to its website, a Site of Conscience is “a place of memory – a museum, historic site, memorial or memory initiative – that confronts both the history of what happened there and its contemporary legacies.” Membership as a Site of Conscience connects HMFM to more than 250 worldwide sites that interpret tragedies and atrocities, such as the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., detention under dictators in Latin America, life in a Russian Gulag, and transiting to death camps during the Holocaust. The coalition’s mission is to not only impart the story of what happened at each site, but to promote civil action to prevent history from repeating itself.

“By joining the Sites of Conscience, we’ll be able to network with these sites and learn additional ways to interpret difficult histories, which will be helpful as we continue to raise awareness of the story of the Fort Missoula internment camp,” says Matt Lautzenheiser, HMFM executive director.

Lautzenheiser predicts HMFM’s designation as a Site of Conscience – the first in Montana − will help with several projects, including the museum’s continued work to fully restore two additional detention barracks. The museum also is partnering with the Missoula Art Museum to create two complementary exhibits: one at MAM featuring artwork reflecting on Japanese internment and incarceration, and another at HMFM elaborating on the history that inspired the art and the story of Fort Missoula and the other Department of Justice camps. Museum staff envision four to six public programs that will accompany the exhibits, which are on track to open in fall 2020. And while it doesn’t include funding up front, membership does open the door to grant opportunities that could help finance some of these initiatives.

In addition to telling the site’s internment story, HMFM features fascinating permanent and rotating exhibits documenting the history of Missoula County. But don’t just take our word for it – head over and see for yourself. The museum is located at 3400 Captain Rawn Way, at the heart of the Fort Missoula National Historic District. It’s currently open from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. And, thanks to a 2002 voter-approved levy, admission is free for all Missoula County residents. You can learn more about the museum and its current exhibits at www.fortmissoulamuseum.org.

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.

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 

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.