Twelve candidates are vying for the six open seats on the Missoula City Council in November's municipal election. In Ward 1, one-term incumbent Heidi West is defending her seat from newcomer Amber Shaffer, and both of them answered the following questions from the Missoulian. Ward 1 encompasses the Rattlesnake, Downtown and Northside neighborhoods.
1. What do you see as the best strategy for helping Missoulians who feel overburdened by property taxes, and how specifically would you work to carry that out?
Heidi West: The City of Missoula is a third of the property tax bill. The city, county, and public schools, combined, are the majority. These, in turn, provide benefits and services ranging from children’s education, emergency response, to the filling of a pothole. Communities across Montana are struggling with an antiquated tax system. The structure is unsustainable. Diversification is needed. A property tax relief system that reflects the cost of living is needed. Revenue diversification includes capturing the impact of millions of out-of-state visitors as well as revising the tax code to reflect shifts in non-tourism industry sectors. I will support the services and infrastructure that improve the quality of life for all Missoula residents, while pushing for systemic change.
Amber Shaffer: The first step I would take to help those who are feeling overburdened would be to make sure that all residents understand not only their tax bills, but also special improvement districts, bonds, and tax increment financing. Having neighborhood meetings that focus solely on these topics would be beneficial to Missoulians citywide. Inviting speakers that can speak to both the pros and cons of each of these issues is crucial. Being more transparent about how these tools work would give Missoulians a better foundation to make a truly informed decision before they cast their ballots.
2. As the city of Missoula has committed to mitigate the effects of climate change wherever it can, what specific actions would you advocate the city take?
West: I will advocate for the city to continue to reduce the carbon footprint of internal operations, look for policy opportunities that can be utilized to incentive or set the expectation of standards that mitigate climate impacts, and support community partners that are instrumental in community wide engagement. The problem is HUGE, but thankfully both the solutions, and the people, are MANY. Trees. Multi-modal transportation options that now include a fleet of zero-fare electric buses. Methane capture. Banning single-use plastic bags. A municipal compost facility. Local ag lands and farmers. Flex building codes. Walkable neighborhoods with day cares, employment opportunities, and access to groceries. Deconstruction over demolition. Creative re-use of buildings. Clean-air refuge spaces. Let’s keep working on this together.
Shaffer: Reviewing the hundreds of pages of documents that show what steps Missoula has taken to combat climate change (all digitally of course), I saw many ideas I had to answer this question have already been implemented over the last six years. I would recommend reviewing and tweaking the implementations to make sure they’re working at their most efficient.
From residents of my ward, I have heard the suggestion of having employers implement incentivized programs to use alternative transportation that are valuable enough to the employee that they participate.
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3. What is the Missoula City Council’s role in addressing the high cost of housing and child care?
West: The Missoula City Council passed a housing policy the summer of 2019. Future policy work will create implementation tools within our existing zoning and engineering codes while also exploring and establishing local revenue sources to fund the development and/or preservation of affordable homes. Additionally, the City of Missoula should continue to support and collaborate with community partners who are already working to support affordable housing. A related issue is the decrease in child care facilities, overall, as well as the high cost and low wages that are inherent in the remaining child care options. It is important to understand barriers that exist for providers, and parents with young children, in order to engage in finding creative solutions to Missoula’s childcare crisis.
Shaffer: We have done the research (at no small cost) and have strategies outlined in the Making Missoula Home report that we must now start implementing. When longtime Missoula builders are joining together on projects to help be a part of the solution, we need to take their opinions seriously. We can’t keep tabling projects week after week as we have seen happen with projects both in the South Hills and Mullan Road in the last few months.
The Missoula Chamber of Commerce has done a wonderful job spearheading the fight to find affordable child care options. I would continue to support their efforts.
4. How do you view the council’s role in formulating city policy and how it intersects with the mayor’s role?
West: Missoula’s government is divided into three branches — executive, legislative and judicial. Council, as the legislative branch, sets intention, crafts ordinance language, and allocates the budget. The mayor, as the head of the executive branch, implements policy, oversees a complex administrative structure, and drafts the proposed budget. The legislative and executive components of our government are committed to a shared mission of enhancing opportunity and quality of life through effective delivery of city services and fiscal stewardship while maintaining and creating a harmonious natural and built environment; with a shared vision of an inclusive city where all people can live and celebrate meaningful, purposeful and fulfilling lives through the confluence of unparalleled recreational, cultural and entrepreneurial opportunities.
Shaffer: The City Council is the policy-making body for the City of Missoula, according to our city charter. The mayor’s role is as the executive branch of our city. The mayor serves as the presiding officer of the council and decides any tie votes of the council. Our city charter can be found on the city website for all to review.