What Happened Between Mayor Engen And Former County Commissioner Jean Curtis To Poison The Deal For The Bridge Apartments?

by Travis Mateer

Why does Mayor Engen not trust former County Commissioner and current WMMHC Board President, Jean Curtiss? Because that is essentially what city officials are saying after WMMHC told the city its offer for the Bridge Apartments wasn’t good enough.

Here’s Curtiss explaining the decision:

“The board reviewed the initial offers and is in negotiation with the person with what we considered the best offer,” said Board President Jean Curtiss. “Our hope and goal is to have an offer that will give Western the opportunity to reinvest in our providing of behavioral health services within this community and others in Western Montana, and resulting in an ownership that will continue to provide affordable housing for the people who live there.”

I added the emphasis because continuing to provide affordable housing for the people who live there is the whole point, right? So, if a former County Commissioner is claiming that the housing will continue to be affordable for the tenants, then what’s the problem?

The problem, as you read further, is that Mayor Engen and his cronies lack CERTAINTY because WMMHC isn’t providing them with the kind of information that would guarantee quality political optics for his reelection effort.

And that has “the city” concerned:

While Western Montana said it’s seeking surety in its agreement with its chosen buyer that it will keep the 20 residents housed at an affordable rate, the lack of certainty has the city concerned.

Missoula Mayor John Engen on Tuesday said the city made a full-price offer last week and responded with a counter offer on Friday.

“We were very surprised to hear from our realtor that our offer had been rejected, because we believe the city is in the best position to keep residents housed,” Engen said. “We do not know who the buyer is because Western has not told us. We also don’t know why our offer was rejected or not subject to another counter-offer. We’ve been assured that Western’s goal is to perpetuate the current use of the Bridge, but without knowing who the buyer is, we are concerned.”

This “concern” from Engen is even more curious when you realize that Jean Curtiss worked very closely with Engen in 2012 to develop Reaching Home, Missoula’s 10 year plan to end homelessness. All you have to do is go to the city website and see who signed off on the plan.

Here’s a screen shot:

Nine years ago, John Engen and Jean Curtiss were on the same page, working to put housing first for ALL Montanans.

Now, they aren’t even speaking to each other as more low-income Montanans wonder if they will be the next victims of Missoula’s gentrification on steroids.

What is REALLY going on behind the scenes of this negotiation? If I can find out, you’ll read it here first.

Thanks for reading.

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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6 Responses to What Happened Between Mayor Engen And Former County Commissioner Jean Curtis To Poison The Deal For The Bridge Apartments?

  1. TC says:

    Not sure of the genesis of the Engen/Curtiss falling out but it happened sometime ago. If you recall Engen energetically promoted newcomer Josh Slotnick over the incumbent Curtiss for Co. Commissioner. Despite being generally well liked around the County Curtiss was unable to prevail against the glut of Slotnick votes produced within City limits subsequent to Engen’s endorsement.
    In public statements (and reading between the lines) it became apparent that Curtiss felt betrayed after previously having worked well (enough) with Engen.
    Having seen how closely Engen/Slotnick are now aligned perhaps Curtiss displayed too much independent thought to remain “on the team”.
    It would be very interesting/revealing to learn the precipitating event that led to this political divorce.

  2. JC says:

    If you look at the composition of the WMMHC board, you’ll see it is dominated by republican county commissioners in the area the agency serves. One only has to look at the concerted efforts of republican politicians, particularly during the legislature — for their efforts to punish Missoula for being a liberal enclave — to understand this is just more of the same. WMMHC’s republican majority board most likely is using its ability to punish Engen for his rule, and Curtiss is just too willing to go along due to Engen’s support for Slotnick like TC mentions. There’s no doubt who’s calling the shots here — pure power politics.


  3. J. Kevin Hunt says:

    This is good information, with interesting insight into what may be behind this cruel gamesmanship. But of course, the theories of what’s behind the offer & rejection are purely speculative. WMMHC CEO Anderson claims it is a first-in-line scenario, and Engen was slow to make an offer, probably assessing the direction the wind was blowing first. Engen appears to dispute that explanation given by Anderson, who insists there was no per se rejection. The backdoor dealing needs to stop. By rejecting a full-price offer, WMMHC has placed itself in a terrible position were Msla. to commence eminent domain proceedings — and that is just what Engen should tell Curtiss that he is prepared to do. If the theory of political rivalry or whatever is accurate, it portrays both players as narcissists, and cruel ones, at that. Enough. I don’t care which of these politicians feels good or bad, or “who started it,” the resource needs to be taken off of the market and now that Engen has FINALLY acknowledged that American Rescue Plan money will be utilized (as demanded by Daniel Carlino and I, as aired by NBC Montana), let’s get on with it.

    I agree that Engen doesn’t do anything that isn’t likely to enhance his standing, and a corollary of this is that he won’t do anything UNTIL he has put enough space between his action and the impetus for his action, to attenuate the appearance that he is reacting to that impetus. I made a Public Records Law request for the federal guidance document on permissible uses of Missoula’s $12M American Rescue Plan grant, on May 20; on May 19 I’d called the Mayor’s office seeking a chat with Engen’s administrative assistant (unavailable), then to leave a voice mail (“just tell me the message” person on phone said), and when I indicated I wanted information on the guidelines in the federal guidance letter, I was told that it had been received the day before. I then said that I wanted to talk to the Mayor’s admin about using some of that money to acquire The Bridge Apts., and gave my phone number. I was told “That money will be allotted per the city’s formal budgeting process, and when that process begins, your voice will be welcome as will the voices of all members of the community.” I requested a return call from the admin and was told that wasn’t likely.

    Then NBC Montana aired its Top Story about the Bridge and jumped on my press release calling upon the City to acquire it, and calling upon Engen to use the federal grant money. A debt-free, TIF-free opportunity. In a prepared statement, Engen responded to NBC Montana’s queries, by saying he was committed to keeping The Bridge “in no-profit hands.” I stressed in the TV story that non-profit ownership wasn’t good enough because the property could be used or any tax-exempt purpose and after all, WMMHC is itself a non-profit. Engen made a second statement in which he said that city acquisition was a last-resort sort of thing (attempting to mollify his vocal critics from the right who are incensed by the City’s land purchases), but that this was a critical need, so it was on the table.

    It is now going on three weeks since I made my Public Records law request for inspection and copying of the federal guidance letter pertaining to the $12M in COVID relief granted to the city. The Mayor’s staff has a copy. I’m being stonewalled. Why? In my assessment, it’s because Engen can neither appear to have (1) made an offer for The Bridge on the City’s behalf, nor (2) to have decided to (pursuant to the guidance letter or via a waiver of a limitation therein) utilize American Rescue Plan funds for that purpose…IN RESPONSE to calls that he do so by a chronic critic of His Mayorship who is running for City Council on a platform of ending sketchy Engen shenanigans.

    Believing that as I do, I’m quite open to these theories of Engen/Curtiss dynamics. It bears mentioning that we learned yesterday that the City has been trying to acquire the other special needs residence owned by WMMHC, unsuccessfully for two years. That revelation supports much of the foregoing armchair analysis, but it weakens the Engen/Curtiss animus theory unless the genesis of such animus dates back that far.

    Regardless, if Engen plays the eminent domain card and thereby brings WMMHC to reason, he’ll have my praises and public defense of his action, though he’ll need to raise that spectre as to both of the WMMHC properties. He said yesterday that he intends to increase the City’s offer, which won’t be accepted if CEO Anderson is on the level. That would further strengthen the City’s hand in a condemnation action and thus make the threat of such a proceeding all the more credible and persuasive. But the property may very well be unloaded before Engen plays the condemnation card, if he ever does. Either Engen or Anderson yesterday alluded to the offer that is under consideration — that was “prioritized” over the City’s offer, as Anderson put it — as being full price “plus something extra.” If that “something extra” is some form of enforceable guarantee of continuity of services, then everyone will be happy, and Engen will no longer have to keep his finger in the air, assessing the wind campaign direction, and an issue beneficial to two City Council campaigns will be relieved of momentum.

  4. TC says:

    Mr Hunt,
    First I think that all things stated by myself, JC and you can be simultaneously correct.
    That said Sir, Im wondering why you, with purportedly and demonstrative knowledge of how Missoula works, would advocate a pursuit of eminent domain seizure.
    I am not trying to be argumentative – rather I ask from a state of befuldaljment. I can think on no things that the City of Missoula (under Engen’s leadership) took over and made better. If another Non-Profit assumed the control of this housing I do not know why you would advocate for the City to do so instead.
    Again, you probably see things clearer than I; just trying to see through your prism.
    Thank you for the consideration

  5. I share TC’s aversion toward assuming the city’s acquisition would be a good thing. What mechanism would ensure the city can’t flip it? I look at the Sleepy Inn and wonder what “mixed use” build will be pitched to the public, if we even get THAT degree of consideration from Engen and his cronies.

  6. J. Kevin Hunt says:

    It’s error to make blanket judgment of all exercises of a police power. The Mountain Water eminent domain proceeding was not per se foolish, what was bone-headed was Engen’s incomprehensible failure to challenge Carlyle’s acquisition of the water system years earlier, on grounds that we might lose before the PSC and make Carlyle angry. There are few private equity firms more amoral and despicable than Carlyle. Nugent then drafted a silly “agreement” with Carlyle saying Msla. would refrain from challenging Carlyle’s acquisition before the PSC, in exchange for Carlyle “considering” an offer from Msla. before others. It was meaningless and the cost of condemnation had grown immensely by the time Msla made an offer that was swiftly “considered” and rejected.

    By contrast, as noted in my comment, WMMHC has already rejected a full-price city offer. That places WMMHC in a very bad position in a condemnation action. Additionally, as WMMHC is cash-strapped, the prospect of such a proceeding itself is probably sufficient to bring WMMHC to terms. A court would be quite likely to grant a preliminary injunction requiring WMMHC to continue services to the tenant clients during litigation. There would be no net loss or public debt because of the Rescue Act funds. Finally, as I also stressed, a non-profit can do anything it wants with the property as long as it qualifies as a tax-exempt purpose. Threatening eminent domain is therefore the best strategic move Engen could make. And if they call his bluff, going through with condemnation is an easily justifiable act. While the City ought not be operating such facilities, the City could contract that out while finding a trustworthy buyer or even a donee. The city could deed restrict the property so as to protect the current tenants and ensure continuity of services at least through the lifetimes or continued occupancy of any of those tenants. It is an improvement in their status that would be accomplished without costing taxpayers a cent. This makes perfect sense to me.

    What’s foreboding about that? What alternative is more reasonable that is within the city’s power to make happen unilaterally? And again, the spectre of condemnation ought to be adequate. WMMHC could end up with less than its market rate sale price in such a proceeding and end up paying both sides’ costs and atty fees.

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