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The City’s State

Mayor, commissioner measure how Missoula is faring

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From Y2K to Election Night, from the earliest rumbling of rising energy costs to last summer’s devastating fires, Missoula Mayor Mike Kadas and Missoula County Commissioner Barbara Evans laid out the successes and pitfalls of an eventful year in the 2001 State of Missoula address Monday afternoon, an event hosted by the Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce. As in previous years, the speeches focused primarily on city and county infrastructure, affordable housing, planning and zoning, Missoula’s growth, and how we intend to pay for it all.

For a $13 lunch buffet of cold cuts and pasta salad, there were few surprises or interesting revelations from the mayor or commissioner. Still, the annual rite of stocktaking is always informative, if only for the bean counters among us: 2000 saw Partnership Health Center treat more than 15,000 low- or moderate-income patients, with at least 1,400 still waiting for a dentist; the county attorney’s office handled 1,500 new cases; Missoula County paved 46 miles of new road with donated asphalt; the county lost three sheriff’s deputies with a combined experience of more than 100 years; and the county closed a $3 million budget deficit.

As always, Kadas and Evans reminded us that space is at a premium, both on the Missoula Valley floor (reflected in the high land prices that continue to rankle affordable housing developers), and in county office buildings (Evans suggested that we tear down the Courthouse Annex, and jokingly urged a public hanging on the courthouse lawn for whoever installed the building’s aluminum windows).

In his wrap-up of 2000, the Mayor reiterated some of the painful lessons of last summer’s Hells Angels visit, saying that despite months of thorough planning, “We really didn’t anticipate how the community was going to react. I don’t think that’s a mistake that we’re going to make again.”

Kadas commended the work of the Missoula Police Department and the city attorney’s office for handling a very difficult situation. He noted that of the 58 citations issued during that July weekend, 51 have pled guilty, been found guilty or plea bargained. Three have failed to appear and four others are awaiting trial.

Kadas used last summer’s devastating fires to not only stress the perpetual importance of managing air quality in the valley, but also to highlight the problems we’re creating for ourselves by expanding development into the urban/wildland interface.

Much of the mayor’s speech focused on city infrastructure—what he called “the bones that everything goes on top of”—creating public spaces like the civic stadium where people of all ages and incomes can mingle, and being mindful of how that growth looks. He suggested that we open a dialogue with architects and builders about design standards for commercial and residential development, so that new growth adds value to communities.

Kadas pointed to several upcoming projects such as the Russell and Third Street redevelopment plan, the Brooks area tax increment district and the Fort Missoula recreational park as historic opportunities for shaping the look of Missoula’s future. “This is the time when we get to monkey with the bones,” he said.

Kadas and Evans differed on their opinion of impact fees to cover the cost of infrastructure for new development. While the mayor believes it’s only fair that new homeowners and builders pay their fair share of the infrastructure that others have already ponied up for, the senior commissioner opposed the idea.

“I do not believe in impact fees,” said Evans. “I think the cost of infrastructure should be borne by all of us, not just the people fortunate enough to get a new house.”

Evans explained some of the reasons for last year’s $3 million shortfall, including lower than expected revenues and higher than expected costs for the new detention center, which have been made up, in part, by bringing in more inmates from other parts of the state.

With last year’s 10 percent across-the-board cut in all departmental expenditures, Evans said, “We feel that we’ve turned the corner and the toughest times are behind us.

“The public may think that if we got along without it, then we didn’t need it,” said Evans, about the services lost in the budget cuts. “I’ll tell you folks, that’s not true.”

She highlighted just some of the true costs of those cuts, such as the lack of county attorneys to prosecute cases and the lack of public defenders that results in court delays, longer incarcerations and ultimately added expenses to taxpayers.

Evans also threw her support behind the removal of Milltown Dam and the estimated 6.6 million cubic yards of hazardous waste accumulating behind it, noting that the county learned only last week that the dam is leaking and has received a “significant hazard” rating from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. She said that the county is already in a dialogue with a landscape architect to offer plans to turn the whole area into a world-class kayaking park.

The news was not all bad. As Evans noted, Missoula was the first county in the state to have its final returns reported on Election Night, and the Historical Museum became one of only 750 museums to be accredited by the American Association of Museums.

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