The top executives of a mental health center and Missoula's mayor are at an impasse over the fate of an affordable apartment building that houses low-income residents with mental illness and disabilities.
Levi Anderson, CEO of Western Montana Mental Health Center, has called the issue a "political football," while Mayor John Engen has said a meeting with Anderson would be "unproductive."
Former county commissioner Jean Curtiss, a board member for the mental health center, said she's disappointed in Engen's handling of the situation.
The 20-unit Bridge Apartments building at 1205 W. Broadway in Missoula is owned by the center. It was built in the 1990s with public funding and had income restrictions to keep the apartments affordable.
The income restrictions have now expired, and Anderson said the center no longer wants to manage properties. The building was listed for sale for $2.19 million.
The mental health center never issued a formal announcement of the sale, and the news of it being listed on the open market was first reported by the Missoulian on May 19.
The city and the county have been in discussions for years to buy the building. The city put in a full-price offer after it was listed for sale.
This week, however, the center said it had prioritized another offer and placed the city's offer on backup status. Engen released a statement saying he was "disappointed" and "concerned" that the clinic had not accepted the full-price offer for the building.
Anderson then emailed Engen and the county commissioners this week asking for a meeting.
"Western would prefer to sit down and talk with the interested parties, the city and the county, the Poverello and others rather than have the discussion be conducted through media blasts and social media," Anderson said. "Western has reached out to the mayor and the commissioners for such a discussion."
Engen, however, replied to Anderson saying a meeting would be pointless. He shared his response with the Missoulian.
"I can’t speak for the Board of County Commissioners, but at this point, I’m not sure there’s much to discuss," Engen wrote to Anderson. "I’m assuming Western is under contract to sell the Bridge Apartments, but I don’t know. I’m assuming that the buyer is a private, for-profit entity, but I don’t know. I’m assuming the buyer is promising to keep tenants in place for some period of time, but I don’t know.
"Based on those assumptions, which I’m happy to have replaced by factual information, any discussion would be unproductive," Engen continued.
Engen also said that if the city is able to buy the building, tenants would be kept in place permanently. Even if the site were to be eventually redeveloped under city ownership, new affordable homes would be found.
"If, for some reason, Western falls out of contract and would like to discuss our offer, please let me know," the mayor wrote. "In the meantime, we’ll be working on contingencies to house the 20 residents of the Bridge who are bound to be displaced by a private, for-profit owner at some point."
Anderson said he and then-county commissioner Curtiss met with Engen and the county commissioners as far back as 2019 to discuss the clinic's intention to transition the ownership and management of the facility.
Before that meeting, in April 2018, Engen announced he was supporting then-candidate Josh Slotnick's bid to unseat Curtiss for a seat on the county commission. Curtiss is still listed as a board member for the mental health center.
Curtiss said that has nothing to do with the center's decision to bypass the city's offer.
"There's an awful lot of misinformation out there," she said. "I hope that my record over time shows that I don't play that political game. My decisions as a board member anywhere do not have to do with politics. The mayor is the one who made this political decision, rather than sitting down with us, to use the media as his soapbox."
Curtiss characterized the mayor's email to Anderson as "snippy."
"I was just disappointed that he didn't want to sit down and at least talk about it," Curtiss said. "Also, there's a misconception that the building has been maintained by the government. Western has maintained that building and kept the rents lower than we could have all this time."
Anderson said the city and the county always said they didn't have the resources to buy the building, including at the final sit-down discussion earlier this year.
"In response to this decision, the WMMHC board voted to put the property on the market to gather interest and vet potential buyers," Anderson said. "Our Realtor was aware that we were interested in finding a buyer that would continue to serve this clientele and keep the rents affordable."
Anderson understands that the city now has access to federal American Rescue Plan Act funds, he said.
"We understand there is new money that is available that may be accessed by the city, the county, and others that was not available prior to listing the property," he said. "Our team had been in discussions with many interested parties, including the Poverello Center, prior to and following the formal listing. We do not know why but those parties chose to back out of discussions regarding a purchase of the property."
The clinic got three offers on the building, including the city's offer.
"Our hope and goal is to have an offer that will give Western the opportunity to reinvest in our clinical services within this community and complete a transaction that will continue to provide affordable housing for the people who live there," Anderson said. "We did not reject the city's offer."
Curtiss said all three offers were full-price, for the same amount of money. One offer was "better" than the others, but she declined to provide details. She's also unsure if the top offer came from a nonprofit or a for-profit entity, she added.
"We aren't sure," she said. "Our Realtor is doing conversations. The other buyer is also interested in keeping those folks in those apartments at a reasonable rent."
Patty Kent, the now-retired staff member at the health center who built the building, said she's disappointed with everyone involved.
"I think everybody is upset about the way this process has proceeded, but at the end of the day the Bridge is a community asset and is there for the people who live there, not anybody else," Kent said. "We need to realize who we serve."