On Mayors, Leaders And Sinking Ships

by William Skink

I have called Missoula home for 17 years. I finished school and started a family here. I slung omelettes for hungover college kids at Food for Thought and handled packages part time for Fed Ex. Then I worked at a homeless shelter for 7 years. That experience opened my eyes, not just to the need (and systemic dysfunction), but to my own privileges.

If it was up to just me, I would be done with Missoula. I would move on. I see where things are going and I don’t like it. But it’s not just me. Missoula can be an amazing place for kids if their families can afford to live here, and I can still afford to live here, so I want my kids to continue calling Missoula home.

The Missoula I remember is quickly disappearing. But that’s progress, right? I remember biking to Big Sky’s tap room on Hickory for a growler of barley wine, then heading over to the fields now being transformed into the Saw Mill District. The baseball stadium debacle was an early warning sign, to me, of things to come.

The preferred narrative of Missoula’s current political leadership is this: we got our water, and business is booming. In fact all this development swooped in to prop up the narrative of peaches and cream when it was joyously announced that the tax base is growing, finally satiating the tax beast, and just in time for election season:

The building boom playing out across Missoula the past few years has finally showed up on the tax rolls at the Montana Department of Revenue, essentially eliminating the city’s need to raise taxes to cover this year’s budget.

In fact, Missoula Mayor John Engen said on Wednesday, the owner of a $250,000 home in Missoula will actually see the city’s portion of their property tax bill decrease by $7.30 a year.

“We received our taxable values from the DOR on Friday and the news was good,” Engen told the Budget Committee of the Whole. “Record development is finally starting to show up on the tax rolls, and this year, we have an expanded tax base.”

If the only measure of a community’s health is the upward trend of its tax base, then Missoula is doing great. But if one asks a simple question, like is Missoula ready to adapt to this growth, things become far less certain.

The University’s problems have been front and center for a while now. Congrats and good luck to that handsome chap, Seth Bodnar, for getting the job of captain on a sinking ship.  At the link James Conner offers this blunt assessment of why flagship boasting rights have shifted from Missoula to Bozeman:

Bozeman is a fast growing technology and recreation center believed to have a high level of public safety. Missoula is an old timber town, its logging and smokejumper heydays behind it, with a reputation, possibly unearned, as a panhandler’s paradise and a rape culture on and off campus. Where would you rather send your daughter to college? Where would she prefer to attend college?

While the University holds its breath for the corporate smile and can-do military skill set to do his thing, St. Pats continues to struggle amidst growing uncertainty, especially considering the dire cuts to Medicaid programs that are looming. Add to that the inability to deal with jail overcrowding, since new programs will go unfunded and further cuts are coming, and one starts wondering how all this new growth can be absorbed.

An inescapable reality of more growth in the Missoula valley means more traffic, and Reserve Street is already a hot mess. Yet for some reason there is an effort to actually reduce lanes of traffic in parts of the city. There is also enough time and money, apparently, to do a deep dive on sign regulations and also enable the obnoxious complainers who live in the University District to “stave off McMansions“.  I remember this same neighborhood, 15 years ago, trying to impose occupancy standards:

The Missoula City Council put occupancy standards on the fast track to the front of the city’s agenda this week.

The proposed standards, drafted by a group of university-area residents, would limit the number of non-related individuals who can live together in the same house or apartment. The city is considering the plan as part of Growth Management Phase Two, the major zoning overhaul, but a close council vote on Monday sent the proposal to the Planning Board on its own.

The entitlement of people who live in the University District is impressive. That they continue to find enablers on City Council is not surprising.

The upcoming election is not difficult to predict. Engen will win, but it will be close enough to give the political status quo pause going forward. I assume that’s why this post popped up at The Montana Post.

JC has the only comment on that post so far and I’m interested to see if the author responds. Here is the comment:

Why just go after Wes Spiker? Sure he is despicable, but the whole guilt by association thing just obviates the need for Missoula to have a discussion about the issues. The problems Triepke brings up in the issue section of her website: homelessness, panhandling, lack of affordable housing or livable wages, property taxes/spending, accountability, city services, etc. are very real. Triepke is far from the rabid right-winger that Spiker seems to be, and she has a good grasp on some the issues that need to be talked about in Missoula. John Engen has had 12 years to work on these issues, and most have gotten worse, so something is wrong in Zoo-town.

Now I don’t believe that Triepke has the right answers, or would make a better mayor than Engen, and I don’t endorse her for sure. But most of us Missoulians would love an in-depth debate on the issues Triepke raises, and more — like gentrification, jail crowding and needed diversion programs, U.M. relations, addiction and mental health services, parking and downtown congestion (the push for high density downtown housing and “vibrancy” is already pushing businesses out of the district) etc. — in the hopes that Missoula’s next mayor (even if it is Engen) realizes that we have major problems that aren’t being properly identified or addressed and that good solutions need to be proposed and implemented. John Engen’s priorities and goals need to be adjusted, and he needs to be held accountable for his part in Missoula’s problems today. A healthy debate on the issues pre-election is the only way that ever is going to happen.

Is a healthy debate even possible in this current political climate? I don’t know. But we will be even more fucked if we don’t at least try.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to On Mayors, Leaders And Sinking Ships

  1. steve kelly says:

    Here in the corporate colony we call Montana, the mayor of a city like Missoula is “appointed” not elected in any democratic sense. We all know (“politics”) it’s rigged, top to bottom. Now, the only question remaining is this: What is anybody going to do about it?

    • Derek says:

      > the mayor of a city like Missoula is “appointed” not elected in any democratic sense

      Weird. I’m pretty sure I just filled out the square next to his name and dropped the ballot off downtown.

      • steve kelly says:

        I’m equally sure there was no square next to a ballot option expressing “No” or “None of the Above.” I also realize, all too well, that many voters have no problem with self-subjugation (to bring under the yoke).

  2. Big Swede says:

    Billings has its problems (homelessness and panhandling) but they never seem to be as bad as Missoula.

    Maybe someone should do a comparative study on the reasons why there’s a difference in the two cities.

    On a related note I read the other day that California holds 21% of the nations homeless. Do we see a pattern developing here?

Leave a Reply