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Housing, parking, economics highlight first round of Missoula City Council debates

Shaffer West
Posted at 1:55 PM, Sep 20, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-20 16:19:02-04

MISSOULA — With the general election looming, candidates looking to represent Ward 1 on the City Council answered questions posed by the audience on Wednesday night, ranging from their views on Missoula’s urban deer population to downtown parking needs.

Incumbent council member Heidi West is defending her seat against Amber Shaffer. The two candidates agreed on most issues, though Shaffer often replied from a business perspective while West spoke to the needy and the city’s social programs.

Shaffer is a Missoula native whose family once ran a corner store. She would be the first Native American woman elected to City Council if she were to win in November.

“My dad is of retirement age,” Shaffer said in her opening remarks. “It’s very hard to watch someone who has worked hard their whole life sit there and try to figure out how they’re going to make it for the next 20 years, how they’ll keep their house and how that’s going to play out.”

West arrived in Missoula with her husband and children, and she struggled to find work and affordable daycare. She entered local politics by serving on her neighborhood council and helping champion the cleanup of the White Pine Sash Superfund site, located in Ward 1.

“I found that I enjoyed the intricate details of looking at ordinance language and the nitty-gritty of how small, minute details affect our lives, and the well-being of our community overall,” said West. “I hope to continue to be a progressive voice on the City Council for access and equity.”

Both candidates agreed on the issues facing their district, including traffic, crime and a lack of infrastructure. Creating opportunities for young working families received mention, as did the city’s challenges around homelessness.

The two also expressed support for the city’s ordinance on gun background checks, along with the debate taking shape in Congress.

“Part of being a responsible gun owner is that if you go sell you gun to someone else, you make sure the person you’re selling that gun to is legally allowed to have it,” said West. “It’s one of the very few and straightforward things we can do for our community to make sure people are safe and don’t have access to guns they’re not allowed to.”

Shaffer offered a similar response.

“If you’re going out to invest in this gun, I don’t think waiting a day or two for a check to come back will effect your purchase,” she said. “Making sure we’re all on the same page of how background checks work and what they actually show us is valuable.”

The candidates each expressed support for tax increment financing, calling it a valuable tool to support redevelopment while attracting outside investment. Both agreed the city could do a better job in selling the value of the program to the public.

Shaffer, however, said the city’s urban renewal districts are set to last too long.

“One of the biggest abuses of TIF financing is that we’re extending those urban renewal districts out to the max,” she said. “It’s crazy to think for that amount of time the money isn’t going back into the areas where it should be.”

Affordable housing may be one of the largest issues facing the city, and each City Council candidate will be posed with the question over the coming weeks. Both Shaffer and West expressed support for the city’s new housing policy, but for different reasons.

“We’re in the process of finding and adjusting our zoning codes … to help incentivize development to get us there,” said West. “Some of the exciting conversations we’re going to have is how to create a viable funding source. That’s vital for funding affordable housing projects.”

The city’s housing policy calls for a long-term funding model, though the source hasn’t taken shape. It could come in the form of wider public partnerships with private developers. It could also come in the form of a housing bond.

Shaffer said the new housing policy presents valuable ideas, including incentives for builders. She said the city should give those builders more credibility and make it easier for them to commence projects.

She added that the housing trust fund model has been successfully used to fund other housing projects in the city.

“I support that, because these housing projects keep prices at affordable levels for a long term,” she said. “My only concern is how we’re going to find access to resources for future funding. If it went for a bond, I wouldn’t support that. I think when we create a bond we’re putting it on credit, and that’s not valuable for anyone at this point.”

Some questions were awkwardly posed, such as “how would you confront Missoula’s growth.” The question gave both candidates pause.

“I think confronting is a really strange term,” said West. “Missoula in some ways has been discovered. People are moving here. There’s a lot of benefit that comes from that and a lot of change that comes from that, and change is scary. The best we can do is plan for growth.”

Shaffer agreed.

“I think a lot of people have this idea that we need to stop people from coming here,” she said. “If you look at our current City Council, they moved here and fell in love with Missoula because it’s a wonderful place to live. I’m not sure we can stop people from wanting to come here.”

The entire forum can be viewed on the Missoula Current’s Facebook page.