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Missoula leaders hold Q&A on pandemic impacts, plans for future
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Missoula leaders hold Q&A on pandemic impacts, plans for future

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One of the biggest questions Missoula faces in the coming months and years is what it will look like once the pandemic has passed.

That thought was at the forefront of a discussion on Monday that included Missoula County Board of Commissioners Chair Dave Strohmaier, Missoula Mayor John Engen and University of Montana President Seth Bodnar during City Club Missoula's annual State of the Community forum.

The three leaders lauded their organization's achievements during the pandemic, while also acknowledging the challenges the past year has brought. Following an initial 10-minute statement, they heard from the community for nearly an hour during a question and answer session.

Missoula has had both new businesses open and old ones reopen in 2021.

The county's housing crisis was a major point of emphasis in the forum, as were several questions regarding COVID-19 regulations, both now and in the future.

"This past year has challenged our entire community in really profound ways that none of us saw coming," Strohmaier said.

"Absolutely none of us have gone unscathed. COVID-19 in Missoula County has brought out the best of folks. It's also regrettably brought out some of the absolute worst and there is no way for us to sugarcoat that as difficult as it is."

Strohmaier called upon the community to "root out" both systemic and personal bigotry and hate. He made mention of the county's Rental Assistance Program as well as the temporary safe outdoor space that was implemented to help Missoula's homeless population.

A question asking what the leaders were doing about affordable housing was one of the first posed. Between 2018 and 2019, median home prices soared 8.62% and the market rate for a one-bedroom apartment in Missoula was $960 per month the last time the federal government reported that data.

Engen emphasized public-private partnerships and city pushes to invest in infrastructure and long-term affordability. Bodnar said he feels UM will play a role in the future of affordable housing as well and emphasized the need for upgrades to its stock.

"We believe that there are remarkable opportunities again for that public-private partnership that really buys down the cost of housing and ensures that the housing has some affordability over the long haul and that's really what goes missing in a market like ours today," Engen said.

Legislation giving more oversight in emergency situations was also discussed. House Bill 121, which is awaiting signature by Gov. Greg Gianforte, would give elected officials more control of local health jurisdictions.

House Bill 230, which has undergone several changes, would similarly give the Montana Legislature more power over emergency declarations by the governor.

"Fundamentally I think that elected officials are ultimately accountable and to the degree that accountability is built into statute, is built into the way health department's are governed and decisions are made is appropriate," Engen said. "I don't think that it's necessarily broken, but I do know that something Commissioner Strohmaier and I are very interested in, as are his colleagues, is having a look at the the interlocal agreement between the city and the county that governs the health department."

Added Strohmaier: "It's probably not a good idea that either (Engen) nor I, nor any of our other elected colleagues serve in the role of health director. I absolutely don't think the public wants us to be having to convene every time there's a public health emergency, such as maybe a sewage spill in a restaurant or whatnot and having to make a decision on immediate action."

The three were also asked about the potential for vaccination passports, which could potentially require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for attendance to certain events.

Each pointed to the priority right now being simply to get shots in people's arms, with Engen saying he "hoped to hell" the federal government would be involved with any sort of regulations in regards to a vaccine passport.

"We're really in that mode of encouraging the widest spread of vaccination possible right now among our UM community," Bodnar said. "I get there are a lot of complexities involved with passports and requirements, but at this stage, our efforts frankly have been focused on getting people through those clinics."

Missoula's economic outlook was also discussed and Strohmaier pointed to tax increment funding as a critical tool looking forward, while Bodnar pointed to the university as a major driver of business in the city and the desire for flexibility in regards to what programs are offered.

Engen, meanwhile, hit on infrastructure and the high quality of life Missoula provides. 

"There's tremendous bullishness for Missoula, both from folks who have been doing business here for a long time and folks who are looking at the community as a place to relocate," Engen said.

Bodnar was also asked about some of the complexities UM is facing in enrollment. He said that last fall, the American Council of Education found 13% fewer students were going from high school to college.

UM has suffered enrollment drops since 2011, though Bodnar said the school saw growth in some areas in 2020. He also mentioned UM would need to be adaptable and to learn from issues the school has faced. 

"We are seeing good promise, but I think there's still a lot of uncertainty in the air," Bodnar said. 

Jordan Hansen covers news and local government for the Missoulian. Contact him on Twitter @jordyhansen or via email at Jordan.Hansen@Missoulian.com

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