Burned Out Law Enforcement In Growing, Urban Missoula

by William Skink

I was not surprised to read in the Missoula Current that local law enforcement is struggling to hire and retain officers amidst increases in crime, which is leading to significant burn-out. I saw this up close and personal with one officer I frequently interacted with during my work at the shelter, to the point of being specifically concerned that his ability to deescalate nuisance issues with challenging street people was being compromised.

Thankfully nothing happened before he was able to retire. 

It was very eye-opening to see his burnout progress, especially as I was dealing with my own burnout. I’ll make the obvious point that the last type of profession you want to see suffer from burnout is a profession that’s responsible for using lethal force.

Confronted with chronic staffing issues, which is just one factor leading to burnout among law enforcement, how should Missoula respond? Well, how do our leaders always seem to respond to challenging issues? Yes, they study it!

While the new officers will help with staffing shortages, the City Council and Police Department will conduct a study within the next year that will guide the department to proper staffing levels, assessing how many officers are needed per capita and suggest ways to increase efficiency.

A city plan to annex roughly 3,200 acres west of Reserve Street is also on the radar, Brady said, and he hopes the study will help determine the number of officers needed to cover the area.

I’m not inherently opposed to studying problems. Without accurate, up-to-date data, reacting to problems could be much more problematic and inefficient. But when part of the problem is a lack of funding, and study’s cost tens of thousands of dollars, I’m concerned that the act of studying the problem becomes the main action taken by city leaders, especially when recommendations to address problems requires more funding than we have (or have prioritized).

That is precisely what happened after the city funded a jail diversion study. The recommendations weren’t a priority for a Mayor running for reelection and trying to keep tax increases as low as possible. Here is how MC reported it in July of 2017:

In an effort to hold the line on tax increases, the Missoula City Council on Wednesday quashed a $39,000 request to maintain landscaping in the city’s greenways, and $50,000 to fund elements of the jail diversion plan, saying this year’s budget was too tight.

Yeah, the budget was tight, but Missoula’s political leadership loves studies so much that instead of funding jail diversion recommendations they managed to find money to study not producing waste:

The council picked up several other funding requests, including $10,000 for street maintenance, which it approved, and $14,000 for a Zero Waste Baseline Study, which it also approved.

Another problem Missoula has with funding essential services is the proliferation of Urban Renewal Districts and the use of Tax Increment Financing. Redirecting taxable value into URDs has been effective in developing blighted parts of Missoula, but with all this growth in URDs, the general fund is being starved.

While MRA became quite comfortable throwing big chunks of money around to help needy developers, like the Lambros clan, the only way to ensure these pockets of development can get essential services, like police, is to raise property taxes to get more money into the general fund.

Last month it appears MRA finally got a clue when panhandling developers were finally told no, they wouldn’t be getting any more TIF candy to satiate their boo-hoo cost overruns. Apparently, had Ellen Buchanan known Sailor Engen would gobble up TIF funds to cover the surprise budget shortfall, that nearly quarter million handout to the library wouldn’t have been handed out:

As part of the effort to balance the city of Missoula’s budget this year, Mayor John Engen requested $750,000 from the TIF districts. By law, that meant that about $1 million also was returned to the Missoula County Public Schools, and $500,000 to Missoula County.

“We always get a lot of requests for projects that enhance the community and don’t create new tax revenues,” Buchanan said, adding in a memo that the proposed practice “would eliminate funding for projects which are tax exempt. We have already proposed and the board approved suspending funding for new MRA initiated public infrastructure projects, such as street and sidewalk projects” in Urban Renewal Districts II and III.

Buchanan added that if she had known the city would ask for the remittance, the MRA wouldn’t have pledged in May to give the new Missoula Public Library $200,000 to help cover the costs of the top floor after a shortfall in library funding for what’s expected to be a $36 million building project.

As Missoula grows and gentrifies, and hosannas are sung to tech development and urban renewal, our first responders are being asked to do too much with too little.

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
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