The Missoula City Council approved Monday the use of $1.1 million in Tax Increment Financing to purchase the Sleepy Inn Motel for temporary use as a COVID-19 shelter for individuals who do not have a place to quarantine, with plans to eventually solicit proposals to build affordable housing on the property.
The council approved the purchase in a 9 to 3 vote, with Councilors Jesse Ramos, John Contos and Sandra Vasecka voting against the proposal.
“The reason why this is in front of City Council is because we have a health department order saying that we need this,” said Councilor Gwen Jones. “We're in the middle of a pandemic, and I think it's important to look to our experts and follow their advice, and they are saying this is a crucial need that we have right now on so many levels.”
The city is currently renting motel rooms as needed and has had to find emergency housing for over 30 individuals who need to quarantine or isolate due to the coronavirus.
"Today, in the COVID-19 crisis, we have no permanent, safe, secure, reliable place for folks quarantining while being tested for COVID-19 or in the case of someone having a COVID-19 diagnosis, no place for them to quarantine and isolate and recover," said Mayor John Engen. "This poses an emergent public health threat."
As planned, the city and Missoula County will work together to abate, staff and operate the temporary quarantine shelter. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, Engen said the city would begin a public process to determine how the property would be developed as affordable housing.
The virtual meeting stretched until midnight, with councilors stopping to take a 10-minute recess following a period of public comment.
Ramos has said the city should have ordered an appraisal before moving ahead on a deal, and he voted against the purchase. He said he believed the city had adequate time to get an appraisal of the property, as discussions have been ongoing for about a month. He said he felt the property was overpriced based on conversations he had with realtors and considering the condition of the motel.
“If we would have backed up and gotten this in order and talked to some real estate appraisers and said ‘This is an emergency,’ I guarantee they would have gotten it done in the time needed to be done,” Ramos said.
Council President Bryan von Lossberg noted that the motel would be a necessary component of the plan to gradually reopen Missoula.
“The value of this facility, relative to the economic reopening in this community and across the state, is going to prove to dwarf the other concerns that we've had,” von Lossberg said.
About 30 members of the public called in to express mixed support and opposition to the purchase of the motel. Some members of the public thanked the city for their quick response, while some objected to the price or the use of TIF funds to make the purchase and asked the city to look at other solutions.
“The council’s failure to address the homeless problem throughout the city is telling,” said Mary Ann Smith. “You've waited until things have become an absolute crisis to do anything, and I'm wondering if your money, your $1.1 million would be better spent trying to mitigate the Reserve Street encampment.”
Members of the public were able to provide comment by phone, email, mail, with a new “e-comment” feature listed next to the meeting on the city’s website, or even by dropping written comments into a dropbox outside the front door of City Council chambers before the meeting. The city detailed all of the ways the public can comment and participate in virtual meetings in their citizen participation guide.
Ellen Leahy, director of the Missoula City-County Health Department, expressed her support of the purchase of the motel and said having the temporary shelter is "important because quarantine and isolation is the mainstay of public health practice." But doing so has been unreliable and "extremely difficult."
"What we've been trying to do is to quarantine and isolate people who do not have a suitable location to do that," Leahy said.
Leahy added that the ability to do contact tracing, in addition to effective quarantine and isolation, is essential in order for Missoula to begin reopening.
"I wish I could be really noble and say I'm doing this so we could help the homeless but frankly, I am requesting this so that we can protect our community from the transmission of coronavirus," she said.
Eran Pehan, in the city's Office of Housing and Community Development, Missoula Redevelopment Agency director Ellen Buchanan, and Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick also spoke in support of the purchase.
Councilor Stacie Anderson at one point asked the council to move consideration of the purchase to the council’s next meeting the following Monday to allow more time to assess the condition of the rooms, levels of meth contamination, and to allow more time for public input. However, the majority of the council voted against the motion, citing the urgency of the situation. Councilors Anderson, Mirtha Becerra, Ramos, Contos and Vasecka vote in support of postponing the decision, although Becerra and Anderson later voted to support the purchase citing the community emergency.
“This proposal has come at a fast pace to us in the community, and under normal circumstances I would have advocated for more time and a stronger public process but these are not normal times,” Becerra said.
Last week, Ramos, alongside Vasecka and Contos, criticized the city's decision not to have a formal commercial property appraisal done on the property.
At the meeting, Buchanan said that in normal circumstances, they would seek an appraisal, but that in this case they "felt a real sense of urgency" and said another appraisal that MRA is currently having done is taking over a month.
"We do not have an extra month," she said.
Adriane Beck, director of the county's Office of Emergency Management, said 100% of operation costs are reimbursable by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state of Montana.
"That reimbursement can go back to the redevelopment agency for use in other areas," Beck said.
"What we have heard relentlessly from our health department, our incident command team, our emergency operations center is that one of the critical weaknesses in our system today to contain this virus ... is to provide what's called non-congregate shelter," Engen said in a video posted on Missoula County's YouTube channel on Monday.
Engen said it has been difficult to secure motel rooms, and has also been difficult for hoteliers.
"The use of rented motel rooms has proven unacceptable due to the uncertainty of rooms being available and the inability to assure that the individuals will remain in place for the required time," Buchanan wrote in the proposal before council.
The Sleepy Inn Motel, located at 1427 W. Broadway next to the Russell Street Bridge, will be purchased using Tax Increment funds from Urban Renewal District II. The MRA Board approved the use of TIF funds for the purchase of the 34-room motel in a 5-0 vote on Thursday.
Following criticism of the proposal, Engen submitted a letter to the council defending the city's desire to purchase the property, in which he said that city staff had spent weeks "inspecting the facility, understanding how operations could work, identifying security options and risks, evaluating sanitation, understanding what furniture and fixtures could be re-used, evaluating our ability to be reimbursed through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and completing a health order that reflects the best practices around the country."
Last month, report by a city health inspector also found live bedbugs, rodent feces, strong odors and yellow tap water in the 15 out of 33 rooms he was able to inspect because they were unoccupied. The report cited 15 total violations (see related story).
"Several rooms, especially 134, have a severe biological odor emanating from inside them," wrote city environmental health inspector, Michael Dorshorst. "It may be sewer, mold, decaying pests, other, or combination of some or all."
Pehan said they will work with health department to help assess what testing will still need to occur and when it will be safe to occupy, including tests to find meth contamination.
Leahy said she was aware and unsurprised by some of the findings of the health inspector's report, and said they would not house anyone in the facility until those problems are abated. She also said she believed abating the pest problems, the need for sanitation and disinfection, and even new mattresses and sheets are "all doable and are reimbursable by FEMA."
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