Montana city uses grant money for mental health response team, new cops

The grant will fund 2 new police hires and establish a Crisis Intervention Training Program to help first responders handle mental health calls


By Cameron Evans
Missoulian, Mont.

MISSOULA, Mont. — Missoula City Council leadership said Tuesday that this year's budget makes "the most significant investments" that "the City has ever made" to address community-wide issues such as mental health and affordable housing, following the council's passing of the budget Monday night for the 2021 fiscal year.

Following months of deliberation and thousands of comments from residents, the council passed the budget Monday in a 9-3 vote. The adopted budget both funds a number of resources to address community needs, and increases funding for the police department. Over the past few months, the council has received hundreds of emails from residents specifically asking to reallocate money from the police budget to fund other areas of critical community need.

"I think that we can simultaneously recognize that there are structural problems with policing around the country and also that we need to support our local police force," Councilor Jordan Hess said Monday. "...We can commit to improving our public safety framework, broadly speaking, proactively through programs like the mobile crisis unit, while also recognizing that we are behind where we need to be in reacting to state and federal negligence."

The budget does not raise property taxes, though the council did vote to increase fees by 3% for a variety of things including land use applications for zoning, business licensing, police special event fees, subdivision and floodplain services, fire inspection, and fingerprinting; and a 4% increase for cemetery fees.

"Over the last few years that I've been on Council, we have been putting substantial money into social programs, housing, homeless efforts, all sorts of things," Councilor Gwen Jones said Monday night. "…We've really been laying the base, and then with the pandemic and with this broader discussion, it has been really good because it has pushed things forward and highlighted where we have great need, and it's created more of a mandate."

In response to those areas of "great need," the adopted budget includes major investments in affordable housing, child care, mental health and equity.

The city's Office of Housing and Community Development alone has committed over $4 million to support initiatives relating to homelessness, affordable housing, conservation, social justice issues and community development. About $1 million of that funds new requests, including $750,000 for the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, $75,000 for the mobile crisis team, $100,000 for the LEARN project and equity work, and $50,000 for the homeless navigation center.

The rest of that funding will pay for items that have been a part of previous years' budgets, such as the emergency winter shelter which will receive $150,000 this year. Housing and Community Development's budget this year also includes $125,000 to support shelter providers such as the YMCA and Poverello Center, $400,000 for the construction of the YWCA emergency shelter, $150,000 for housing navigation and case management, $200,000 for homeowner rehabilitation loans, $806,000 for the construction of 200 affordable homes, $30,000 for the Zero Waste Partnership, $240,000 for Missoula Aging Services and $200,000 for Arts Missoula, among other things.

The city will also contribute $750,000 to the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, which Council President Bryan von Lossberg called "the largest general fund investment to address the community need that I've seen during my time on council."

Councilors said the city's contribution will add to affordable housing funding commitments that the Missoula Redevelopment Agency has made in the past 12 months, including a yearly $1 million contribution to the Trust Fund, $1.34 million for the Villagio development, which will provide 200 affordable housing units, $6.6 million for the Scott Street purchase, which will translate into 30 to 40 acres for residential development (a portion of which will be affordable housing), and $1.1 million for purchase of the Sleepy Inn with plans to turn the property into affordable housing after it is done being used for a COVID-19 quarantine shelter. In addition, the MRA will contribute $142,000 for construction of a YWCA shelter to house homeless families with children.

The city's budget also includes $50,000 to kick-start the Trinity Housing Project and create a homeless navigation center to provide a nucleus of social services to support Missoula's homeless. The money will be used to design the program and make sure its physical facility will support the creation of a crisis stabilization center for individuals in a behavioral health crisis. In city meetings throughout the week, council members and other city staff said Missoula is still short of a place to take individuals in crisis, which will be integral to the success of the Mobile Crisis Response Team.

"Historically, municipalities have not been the main provider for mental health services, as this was a federal and state government responsibility," read a budget summary the council sent to media on Tuesday. "However, with federal and state cuts to these services spanning decades, local government is placed in a position in which it must respond to the need for these services."

In an initial effort to provide better mental health supports for Missoulians, the city will contribute a total of $189,000 for Mobile Crisis Response Teams, including the city's original $75,000 commitment and an additional $114,000 the council approved Monday to ensure that two teams of mental health providers responding to 911 calls will be working 80 hours total per week for the next 10 months starting Oct. 1. The program will have a total budget of approximately $500,000, which includes grant and county funding.

The city's budget also includes $151,000 in grant money for a Crisis Intervention Training Program to train first responders on how to appropriately handle mental health crisis situations.

In another effort to meet the need for child care and support low-income families, the city will contribute about $92,000 for a free before- and after-school program for children at Lowell Elementary in partnership with Missoula County Public Schools.

Another $100,000 will support the preliminary steps in a City-driven internal policy and equity audit, and a qualitative and quantitative research study conducted by LEARN Missoula, a predominantly BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) research team working to address anti-racism at a structural level in local government and municipal systems.

Although the council rejected two new requests from the Police Department, which included $77,352 to pay officers for overtime while completing training and $45,000 for a fifth police motorcycle, it ultimately voted to increase the department's funding by $478,930, in addition to $268,594 for two new officer hires which will be funded by a grant.

The increased funds will pay for personal protective equipment, ballistic helmets, vehicles, body cameras, locker room and security features, and the replacement of some vehicles. The approved police budget includes a new request for $148,980 for training, which doubles the funding level from prior fiscal years for new training. The new training, requested by Chief Jaeson White, will include skills for Patrol and Detective Officers, Crisis Intervention Training, Implicit Bias, Use of Force and De-escalation, and Civil Disturbance training.

Councilors Jesse Ramos, Sandra Vasecka and John Contos voted against the motion to adopt the budget Monday night, and Ramos said he could not support the budget because he thinks the city needs to diversify its revenue stream.

"When we look at the massive amount of revenues and cash flows that come from fines, fees and surcharges, we have to look at how those are are affecting different members of our community," Ramos said.

Ramos said he was "grateful to the mayor for not raising property taxes" but said there are many things in the budget he cannot support. He also said he did not put forward amendments because he has "been through that before" and said it is difficult to get budgets passed with council's "different philosophies on the role of government."

©2020 Missoulian, Mont.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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