Missoula County imposes November ballot tax to fund crisis services
Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
Stating it’s time to invest in Missoula’s social needs, county commissioners agreed Thursday to impose a crisis services tax on the November ballot to fund homeless operations, health care mental health and addiction treatment.
While not the only request for funding in this year’s election, the crisis levy would bring in €20 million if passed, or about $5 million a year, to fund a range of services launched by the city and county with federal funding related to the pandemic. .
This funding, which included the American Rescue Plan Act, is now about to expire and without another source of revenue, many of the programs it funded will end. That, according to defenders, is not an option they can settle with.
“Soon, the ARPA funding provided to Missoula by our federal government will run out. There are currently no plans in place to execute programs supported by this funding,” said Shannon Flanagan, who is helping lead the levy application. “Without replacing this funding, the programs the city and county have created to support community members struggling with homelessness, addictions and mental health will disappear.”
Over the past few years, the city and county, in partnership with local organizations, have invested millions of dollars in one-time funding to rock a number of programs aimed at homelessness, housing, domestic violence and to crisis intervention.
Efforts have included temporary safe outdoor space and a sanctioned homeless camp. The city and county have also invested in winter shelters, helped fund operations of the Poverello, and helped acquire low-income housing and property to house vulnerable populations.
Several people who turned to these services for help praised the county’s efforts and urged the commissions to support the levy. The Missoula City Council should do the same.
“I was homeless for three years. I was a survivor of domestic violence,” Linda Clark said Thursday. “The temporary safe outdoor space allowed me to be in a safe place where I could work on myself. I have permanent accommodation now and life is getting better.
Under the election measure, the owner of a house with a taxable value of $100,000 would see a tax increase of $27 per year. The owner of a house valued at $200,000 would pay $54 per year. Several other funding requests have either passed this year or will appear on the ballot in November.
Janice Staton, representing the First United Methodist Church, said while the levy would increase taxes for property owners, the congregation still supports funding for crisis services in Missoula.
“We know from our first-hand experience that the crisis services the county has created during the pandemic are vital to the people we care about and care for in the community,” she said. “Mental illness and unaddressed addiction fuel homelessness, create dangerous behaviors and diminish the well-being of us all.”
Missoula voters in June passed a levy request to provide more funding for Missoula Aging Services. This week, Missoula County commissioners also approved a $4.4 million general obligation bond to cover a wage claim filed by county sheriff’s deputies.
Last week, the commissioners also agreed to place a separate general obligation bond on the November ballot to raise $19 million for improvements to the fairgrounds, including a livestock building and more recreational ice. The Crisis Services Tax will appear on the ballot along with the fairground deposit.
Opponents in written comments called on the county not to put the crisis services tax on the ballot, citing ongoing tax increases. Other opponents have suggested that such services would continue to draw needy people to Missoula, costing taxpayers even more.
But on Thursday, at least, none of the levy opponents spoke in public testimony. Last week during the bail hearing, no opponent spoke either.
Advocates for Thursday’s tax included a University of Montana professor, psychologist, emergency room nurse, religious leaders, system providers and formerly homeless people who have used the services to change their lives.
The commissioners were compelled by the testimony.
“The time for twists is over. It’s time to get down to business,” Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said. “We don’t have tens of millions of dollars stashed away in banks or sitting in the courthouse. What we have is the ability to ask community members to adopt a levy.
The state of Montana is currently sitting on a budget surplus of over $1 billion. In recent years, city and county officials have lamented the lack of state support for funding these services, leaving local ratepayers to cover the cost.
“We have seen the immense benefits for our clients when they receive immediate access to mental health care,” said Abby Harnett of Western Montana Mental Health Center. “Mental health emergencies have increased across the board and demand for crisis services has increased.”
While many praised the new crisis response efforts launched by the city and county, others praised the range of shelters in Missoula created for the homeless. This included the Emergency Winter Shelter, which is run by the Poverello Center.
The city and county helped fund shelter operations last year and even covered salaries to help the Poverello attract workers. Jill Bonny, the shelter’s executive director, said the winter shelter housed an average of 100 people a night last year.
“These are the people most likely to die on the streets. The winter shelter provides them with protection from the elements as well as a resource center for their journey to housing,” Bonny said. “Over the past two winters, we have been able to report that no one has died on the streets due to exposure to the harsh Montana winters. This is a direct result of our winter shelter emergency. Going back will cost lives.