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A modest proposal

Prioritizing social service agencies in Missoula

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The original mission looked like a quest to trim the fat. When the Community Impact Council (CIC) convened earlier this year, its stated goal was, in part, to “identify the most critical health and human care services in our community,” and “where administrative mergers are possible and where there exists duplication.”

“I was afraid that there would be fights,” says Judy Wing, chief professional officer of United Way of Missoula County (UWMC), which called the conference. “And I’m from Butte.”

In 2001, United Way of America produced a report comparing basic needs—like food, shelter and medical care—and resources across the country. The same year, UWMC, one of approximately 1,400 national and independent branches, produced a companion report that localized the information and compared the Missoula community to nine other cities with similar demographics. The results spoke well for Missoula. Only one city—Rapid City, S.D.—had a higher level of per capita giving. The next step for UWMC was to determine “what health and human care services our community has the will to sustain in order to serve our citizens.”

With her sling-backed silver shoes, silver hoop earrings, short red hair and raspy laugh, Wing appears too extraverted to be self-diagnosed with an anxiety-induced stomachache—or at least too cool to admit it. But as she anticipated the gathering of the CIC—a group of service providers, philanthropists and advocates that were charged with identifying social services the Missoula community should or should not sustain—her stomach tied itself up.

She had reason to be nervous.

Not only was the agenda aggressive—akin to sabre-rattling against Missoula’s non-profit service providers—but such analysis was new. And not just for the Garden City.

“We set out trying to find out whether any United Way in the whole stupid country had done anything like this, and they hadn’t,” she says. She had hoped another agency could provide a road map.

In February and March, the group—first, a core group, then an expanded membership—met over the course of two phases and six three-hour sessions.

The final report, which UWMC will promote in the next couple months, is complete. The one-page report identifies the basics—“food, shelter, health, and safety”—as funding priorities for the Missoula community. It makes no recommendations for possible mergers. It identifies no agencies as extraneous to Missoula’s web of basic service providers. In fact, it names no agencies at all, essential or otherwise.

Superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools Jim Clark, like Wing, and other participants, agrees that determining the services or agencies the community lacks the will to sustain became the elephant in the room. Early on during discussions, he pushed the question, he says. “Is this really our purpose?” he asked. “Are we going to be able to do that?”

In the end, the answer was no.

For starters, the varied participants—from industry representatives to law enforcement to government to the business community—didn’t even speak the same language.

When identifying target populations, remembers Wing, someone brought up criminals. Criminals receive services before, after and during incarceration. But, says Wing, law enforcement’s reaction to criminals as an at-risk population was cut and dried: “‘That’ll be the day.’”

Plus, the conversation mushroomed. Big ideas surfaced, like, “The whole economy needs to be reformed,” remembers UWMC’s Shari Stutz. Or, says Clark, “Let’s eliminate poverty.” The group entered into the age-old debate about “whether people were entitled to human care,” says Don McCammon, chair of UWMC’s research and development committee. At the end of the second meeting, says County Commissioner Bill Carey, it was clear that “this was going to be a more general, almost intellectual exercise.”

McCammon had hoped that the group would identify two specific areas that needed attention, like hunger and homelessness.

“It very quickly came out in that first meeting that we were not going to get to that focused an agenda,” he says.

Some are disappointed—for instance the media, says Wing—that the group never identified superfluous agencies.

“I think we could get there,” says Clark, “but what happens is it becomes a very public valuing system.” He likens a discussion of agencies for which funds could be eliminated to the work the strapped school district must do—weighing program cuts against school closures—but with a more expansive reach. “Awkward,” he says, is a good word to describe the endeavor.

Joe Bischof, executive director of the Poverello Center, Inc., believes it was best not to address the worth of specific agencies at all.

“I think it would be wholly inappropriate,” he says. He was glad to be a part of the discussion—in particular, he says, because “We’re a non-United Way agency”—but he also wanted more provider agencies represented if the group was going to discuss the possibility of duplication among them. For his part, he believes many of the service providers complement each other.

As a result of the CIC, the UWMC has a more clear idea of how the Missoula community views social services. UWMC will begin to take an active role in shaping public policy and will begin advocating in Helena for essential services. Not, says Wing, because it anticipates a decline in government funding for social services, but in order to take a pro-active stance “trying to inform, in our case the state, what the needs are.” UWMC won’t hire a lobbyist, but it will do whatever is within its legal boundaries and comfort zone, says Wing. It will also assemble baseline data of at-risk populations and needs in Missoula. And it will look at basic needs and gaps in services through another agency’s lens. First Call For Help, says Wing, is a good point of reference.

“They keep track on a monthly basis of all of the requests, how much assistance they were able to give, and what the gap is,” says Wing.

Asked if they will eventually seek to determine which services or agencies the community cannot sustain, the UWMC folks say they don’t think so.

They would like to take another look at what the community does have the will to sustain, says McCammon.

Trimming the fat, though, was a large and uncomfortable undertaking.

Says Clark: “It may have been an impossible task.”

kszpaller@missoulanews.com

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