MISSOULA - While the Missoula City Council takes a holiday recess, it may be working in a new reality in 2023 as the Montana Legislature convenes and charts its own path forward for the state.
Some of the issues expected to emerge, such as housing and tax reform, could be beneficial to Missoula's own agenda while others, including changes to the state's Constitution, are widely considered by local officials as a potential setback.
The Missoula City Council will be charting its own path forward, looking at its accomplishments in 2022 and the work that lies ahead.
“When I look back on 2022, the biggest thing is that we had a mayor of 17 years who passed away and we had to transition to a new mayor and appoint a new city councilor,” said council President Gwen Jones. “None of it was easy, but we did it and we're moving forward.”
Missoula Mayor John Engen passed away in August after etching his place in local history as the city's longest-serving mayor. The later years of his tenure set the stage for what the City Council and Mayor Jordan Hess will be working on over the next year.
Housing stands high on the list and earlier this month, the city kicked off efforts to rewrite codes and regulations to streamline development and boost the city's housing stock.
The work started under Engen and will take several years to play out. The Legislature could also help or hinder that process over the coming months.
“Code reform is started and it's going to be huge,” Jones said, adding that it plays into the city's goals around housing. “We'll see what the Legislature does over the next three or four months. It always has a big impact on us. We'll be watching all that.”
Jones believes issues around homelessness are closely tied to the city's housing challenges. But while city officials are working to address housing issues through regulatory reform, addressing issues around homelessness and crisis intervention represent another challenge, and one that's not easily solved.
In November, voters in Missoula opposed a crisis services levy that would have tapped taxpayers for an additional $5 million a year to pay for services. Without that revenue — and with money from the American Rescue Plan Act running short — a path forward hasn't been identified.
Jones said it will stand among the many issues facing City Council in 2023.
“An ongoing issue that's going to be escalated next year is the increasing homelessness and how we're going to grapple with that,” Jones said. “We're going to head into the next year with less resources and probably bigger numbers. It's going to be a big issue.”
While some Missoula delegates to the Legislature see opportunities in the 2023 session, others are gearing up for expected philosophical clashes, particularly around the state's Constitution.
Advocates of the document, including former delegates, have been working over the past few months to promote the Constitution's visionary clauses, such as the right to a clean and healthful environment.
But among the 4,100 draft requests for new bills this session stand several that could tamper with the Constitution, and that has several members of the City Council concerned.
“The continued attacks on local control is something that's very alarming,” said council member Stacie Anderson. “This session there are many things that have been slowly bubbling to the surface, combined with the urgent situation with over 40 bill drafts to amend our great Constitution. Compromise is wonderful, but knowing what the long-term ramifications of those are is something that's troubling me.”
Missoula is known as a progressive city in a state that has trended to the right in recent years. At times, it places Missoula and other progressive cities in the state at a disadvantage during the Legislature.
Jones said members of the City Council are aware of the dynamic.
“We'll try to be very sensitive to the dynamic and figure out where we can be constructive,” Jones said.