Missoula Mayor John Engen Wants Cake, But Gets Crow

by William Skink

Mayor John Engen and French President Emmanuel Macron have something in common.: both elected leaders have responded to public outrage by backpedaling on policy decisions that would have turned the financial screws on those who can least absorb it.

The gambit to reverse the fuel tax that sparked the yellow vest uprising in France isn’t looking tremendously successful in addressing the outrage. That’s because the outrage is over much more than just one tax.

In Missoula, Engen put the brakes on the controversial sidewalk plan that saddled some local home owners in the Slant Street neighborhood with bills in the tens of thousands of dollars. This came after City Council backed off an increase in fines for not removing snow.

The backlash against the sidewalk bills going to residents during the week of Thanksgiving should have been anticipated, something Engen acknowledges. So, what’s the disconnect? From the link:

Engen agreed that they “had some internal communication issues” over the costs and the issuing of the letters. He doesn’t place the blame on any one person, noting that staff followed the normal process, “but when the numbers are that high, we probably should have internal conversations first.”

Especially when it’s an integral part of the ongoing conversation about the lack of affordable housing, he added.

“It’s a balancing act,” Engen said. “By stepping back in this case, we are acknowledging we are off balance, and as much as I like to have my cake and eat it too, I can’t.

“We’re having conversations about affordable housing and yet tacking on a couple hundred bucks extra on properties for sidewalks. That defies logic. There is clearly a need for sidewalks — they are part of the transportation plan and need to be safe. But the expectation to have adjacent non-commercial property owners pay more than they can afford just doesn’t work. That’s why we’ve pulled the plug on this for now.”

What incredible insight from the Mayor. Yes, doing things that makes housing more expensive while lamenting the crisis in affordable housing seems to defy logic. But that didn’t stop the Mayor from promoting the Open Space Bond, and it hasn’t stopped MRA from being the piggy bank for gentrification, and it won’t stop our City Leaders from continuing to do things that defy logic, like reducing 5th and 6th street to one lane and somehow expecting that to make traffic flow more efficiently.

One of the problems with referencing internal communication issues for the sidewalk fail is the move by Mayor Engen a few years ago to dramatically shuffle things around to create the Office of Housing and Community Development. Let’s go back to the summer of 2016 to see what the hope was for creating this new office:

Missoula Mayor John Engen gave a presentation to the board on the city’s plan to open a housing office and hire Fowler Pehan as the full-time director.

Engen said he’s been talking about getting more affordable and safe housing in Missoula for the past decade, but he hasn’t been able to “move the needle” as much as he’s hoped.

“We’ve relied on community partners to figure it out, and the way they’ve figured it out is 10, 20 or 30 units at a time,” he said. “I’ve been very frustrated that we do not have a housing policy here in Missoula, nor do we have much intentionality in the way we make public investments in housing.”

Now that some time has elapsed, is there any more “intentionality” in how the city approaches housing policies? How many bonds have been passed since the summer of 2016 to make housing more expensive? What has MRA done to address affordable housing, bail out Southgate Mall? Throw money at the library? Help out poor hotel developers? If by intentionality the Mayor means intentionally making housing more expensive, then his office is doing a fine job.

The idea was for MRA to work hand-in-hand with the director of this new housing office. Ellen Buchanan was even given an “undetermined pay raise” to get things running smoothly:

Engen said that Ellen Buchanan, the director of the MRA, would be given an undetermined pay raise to help Fowler Pehan get the office up and running smoothly.

“Working closely with the Redevelopment Agency and TIF (funding) means we can make some dramatic change and get a lot of bang for our buck,” Engen explained. “The MRA is nimble, has great governance and a record of accomplishment. We will have instant credibility if we bring MRA and housing together.”

The Missoula City-County Office of Planning and Grants would be “taken apart” so that the city would control its grants, and Missoula County would do likewise. The planning arm of that office was already taken apart years ago, and the city’s Development Services offices runs city planning issues.

Almost three years later, does anyone think things are running smoothly? Backpedaling on two sidewalk controversies amidst public backlash and being caught flat-footed with no plan for the unsheltered as winter hits Montana seems like the opposite of running smoothly.

Acknowledging city actions defy logic is at least a step in the right direction. Unfortunately I don’t believe words expelled from the mouth of the Mayor have much meaning. The Mayor needs to prove, with action, there is more to his admission than a politician doing damage control.

Until that happens I suggest the Mayor avoid referencing anything to do with eating cake, at least until he’s done eating crow.

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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