MISSOULA — Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday praised city officials and the health department for acting quickly in securing the Sleepy Inn for use as a quarantine shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In a unanimous move, the county approved an agreement with the city regarding the property’s management as a shelter for as long as it’s needed, with the 100% of the costs to be reimbursed by FEMA and the state of Montana.
“This was a great act of creativity and everyone acting quickly,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “It’s the best thing we can do for public health, to keep these folks out of the general population.”
The Missoula City Council last week approved the property’s purchase for $1.1 million using tax increment financing from Urban Renewal District II. On Monday night, the council followed that decision by voting 9-3 to approve the operating agreement with the county.
Adrian Beck, head of Disaster and Emergency Services for the county, said the costs of operation will be fully reimbursed. That should happen sooner than under most circumstances, as both the state and federal government have issued a disaster declaration.
“Emergency response measures are eligible for FEMA reimbursement at a 75% percent rate,” Beck said. “In this case, the state has honored to pay the remaining 25%. Emergency response and protection measures born by the county, or other forms of local government, stand to have 100% of those costs reimbursed.”
Beck described the quarantine shelter as a new protective measure authorized by FEMA. Other cities have taken similar steps in an effort to isolate the homeless and other vulnerable populations during the pandemic.
FEMA approved Missoula’s use of the Sleepy Inn as a quarantine shelter and will do so every 30 days. The current window closes on May 10, though Beck expects FEMA will renew the contract for another 30-day period.
“They are approving these plans in 30-day increments with the intention of being responsive to whatever the needs are on the ground, and to whatever the public health emergency is, recognizing it will be different across the country,” Beck said. “We have every expectation with our conversations with the state and FEMA that we’ll be approved for a second operational period on May 10.”
Local officials have placed the cost of the lease at $1,666 a day, or roughly $49 per room. Total operating costs are estimated around $100,000 a month, though that will depend on occupancy. Reimbursement from FEMA and the state will pay back the city’s purchase cost. City officials have said repair and mitigation costs won’t exceed $100,000.
“We have begun work, starting this morning, to make those remediation, mitigation and repairs,” said Beck. “That will continue until we get to the point where we’re able to have it suitable for occupancy.”
Health officials plan to begin using the shelter as early as the weekend. The property will be managed jointly by the city and the county. The county is in the process of purchasing an insurance polity to cover aspects of the shelter’s operation.
“The city and county received a draft of the general liability policy that will cover the activities at this location,” said Erica Grinde, director of risk management and benefits at the county. “The policy will be issued to Missoula County with the city named as an additional insured. I’m in the process of reviewing that.”
Critics have questioned the shelter’s true need as the number of positive cases falls. Missoula County has reported no new cases of the virus in nearly a week.
But commissioners, like a majority of the City Council, said the shelter is needed and will play a role in protecting public health. It will also be available if the pandemic returns in a feared second wave.
“One of the prime responsibilities of the Board of County Commissioners and local government is to further protect public safety and health,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “This falls exactly in line with that, in particular, by addressing the need for isolation and quarantine for folks who have no home.”