Missoula Mayor John Engen Wants Cake, But Gets Crow

by William Skink

Mayor John Engen and French President Emmanuel Macron have something in common.: both elected leaders have responded to public outrage by backpedaling on policy decisions that would have turned the financial screws on those who can least absorb it.

The gambit to reverse the fuel tax that sparked the yellow vest uprising in France isn’t looking tremendously successful in addressing the outrage. That’s because the outrage is over much more than just one tax.

In Missoula, Engen put the brakes on the controversial sidewalk plan that saddled some local home owners in the Slant Street neighborhood with bills in the tens of thousands of dollars. This came after City Council backed off an increase in fines for not removing snow.

The backlash against the sidewalk bills going to residents during the week of Thanksgiving should have been anticipated, something Engen acknowledges. So, what’s the disconnect? From the link:

Engen agreed that they “had some internal communication issues” over the costs and the issuing of the letters. He doesn’t place the blame on any one person, noting that staff followed the normal process, “but when the numbers are that high, we probably should have internal conversations first.”

Especially when it’s an integral part of the ongoing conversation about the lack of affordable housing, he added.

“It’s a balancing act,” Engen said. “By stepping back in this case, we are acknowledging we are off balance, and as much as I like to have my cake and eat it too, I can’t.

“We’re having conversations about affordable housing and yet tacking on a couple hundred bucks extra on properties for sidewalks. That defies logic. There is clearly a need for sidewalks — they are part of the transportation plan and need to be safe. But the expectation to have adjacent non-commercial property owners pay more than they can afford just doesn’t work. That’s why we’ve pulled the plug on this for now.”

What incredible insight from the Mayor. Yes, doing things that makes housing more expensive while lamenting the crisis in affordable housing seems to defy logic. But that didn’t stop the Mayor from promoting the Open Space Bond, and it hasn’t stopped MRA from being the piggy bank for gentrification, and it won’t stop our City Leaders from continuing to do things that defy logic, like reducing 5th and 6th street to one lane and somehow expecting that to make traffic flow more efficiently.

One of the problems with referencing internal communication issues for the sidewalk fail is the move by Mayor Engen a few years ago to dramatically shuffle things around to create the Office of Housing and Community Development. Let’s go back to the summer of 2016 to see what the hope was for creating this new office:

Missoula Mayor John Engen gave a presentation to the board on the city’s plan to open a housing office and hire Fowler Pehan as the full-time director.

Engen said he’s been talking about getting more affordable and safe housing in Missoula for the past decade, but he hasn’t been able to “move the needle” as much as he’s hoped.

“We’ve relied on community partners to figure it out, and the way they’ve figured it out is 10, 20 or 30 units at a time,” he said. “I’ve been very frustrated that we do not have a housing policy here in Missoula, nor do we have much intentionality in the way we make public investments in housing.”

Now that some time has elapsed, is there any more “intentionality” in how the city approaches housing policies? How many bonds have been passed since the summer of 2016 to make housing more expensive? What has MRA done to address affordable housing, bail out Southgate Mall? Throw money at the library? Help out poor hotel developers? If by intentionality the Mayor means intentionally making housing more expensive, then his office is doing a fine job.

The idea was for MRA to work hand-in-hand with the director of this new housing office. Ellen Buchanan was even given an “undetermined pay raise” to get things running smoothly:

Engen said that Ellen Buchanan, the director of the MRA, would be given an undetermined pay raise to help Fowler Pehan get the office up and running smoothly.

“Working closely with the Redevelopment Agency and TIF (funding) means we can make some dramatic change and get a lot of bang for our buck,” Engen explained. “The MRA is nimble, has great governance and a record of accomplishment. We will have instant credibility if we bring MRA and housing together.”

The Missoula City-County Office of Planning and Grants would be “taken apart” so that the city would control its grants, and Missoula County would do likewise. The planning arm of that office was already taken apart years ago, and the city’s Development Services offices runs city planning issues.

Almost three years later, does anyone think things are running smoothly? Backpedaling on two sidewalk controversies amidst public backlash and being caught flat-footed with no plan for the unsheltered as winter hits Montana seems like the opposite of running smoothly.

Acknowledging city actions defy logic is at least a step in the right direction. Unfortunately I don’t believe words expelled from the mouth of the Mayor have much meaning. The Mayor needs to prove, with action, there is more to his admission than a politician doing damage control.

Until that happens I suggest the Mayor avoid referencing anything to do with eating cake, at least until he’s done eating crow.

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Yellow Vests, Yellow Blankets

by William Skink

I put on
a yellow vest–

watch me
as I

sniveling, sycophant

in their bones
will know

but that’s across
a big, big

we’re more

I do not have
a yellow vest

we are
much less

I put on
my thinking cap

watch me
as I

council persons

clearly do not

there is a plan
but their hot air

cannot stop
the cold

beware their
yellow blankets

all the land’s
been sold

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Sidewalk Poem

by William Skink

I submitted this poem to the Missoulian and it ran online yesterday. Have a happy weekend staying warm, Missoula.

you can die on the sidewalk
with no place to sleep
because here in Missoula
even sidewalks aren’t cheap

our dear city leaders
want more sidewalks to die on
giving churches opportunities
to provide blankets and soup

sidewalks aren’t cheap
some residents now know
after Thanksgiving week letters
arrived with the snow

and speaking of snow
stiffer fines are coming
for failing to shovel
Grandma! work off that stuffing!

you may think Missoula
is a wonderful place
with rivers and mountains
and great food to taste

but if you’re poor and disabled
or elderly and infirm
or not working in tech
this poet can confirm

your worries aren’t shared
by the luminous ones
who know better than you
and control all the funds

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Missoula County Commissioners Deny Funding For Warming Center

by William Skink

Missoula County Commissioners “temporarily denied” emergency funding for the Salvation Army warming center because, according to the Commissioners, it’s not an emergency. I presume those defining what is and is not an emergency all have warm homes to go home to at the end of the day.

That said, I get their point. We shouldn’t be here, in December, with temperatures going into single digits tonight, without a viable alternative for those who can’t stay at the Pov (for a number of very good reasons). Here’s Commissioner Rowley from the MC piece:

“To bring this to us now and say it’s an emergency is not fair, and it’s poor planning,” Rowley said. “I’m not understanding exactly why the community’s poor planning is considered the taxpayers’ emergency when this could have been addressed years ago, and definitely months and months and months ago.”

While advocates have held a number of meetings on the issue, Rowley said the county was excluded from those talks. That also serves as a major source of frustration, she said.

“We are excluded from the process until somebody wants money,” she said. “That’s not okay.”

Now that the County has put their foot down, how will Missoula City Council and the Mayor respond? Do they have an explanation for why there wasn’t a better plan in place for winter in Montana for those without shelter?

I can understand newer City Council members being less informed about the City’s 10 year plan to end homelessness because they weren’t around when the plan was being studied and formulated. Mayor Engen, on the other hand, was around in 2012, and has since vanquished a corporate behemoth to obtain Missoula’s water infrastructure. So where should the buck stop, Mayor Engen?

I left work today early because when the news of this hit I was literally too angry to be of use to anyone. It is absolute bullshit that we continue to have these useless fucking conversations. We know where the gaps are, we know what it would take to plug the gaps, and the only reason it hasn’t happened is because it’s not a priority.

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Pappy Bush, Donnie Trump And Presidential Pardons

by William Skink

It’s truly amazing to see US state media bestow sainthood on George H.W. Bush. If you watch or read US state media, you may be tempted to think this loving family man from the GREATEST generation is now plucking a divine harp in heaven. Aided by Trump derangement syndrome, any blemish on Bush Senior’s legacy will be dutifully expunged in order to mythologize this deceitful operator of US imperial ambition.

The supreme irony is Pappy Bush actually did what Trump has only so far threatened to do–use the power of the presidential pardon to obstruct justice and protect his own ass. Bush avoided being directly implicated in the Iran/Contra scandal by pardoning 6 people on the eve of the trial. from The Intercept:

The Iran-Contra affair, in which the United States traded missiles for Americans hostages in Iran, and used the proceeds of those arms sales to fund Contra rebels in Nicaragua, did much to undermine the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Yet his vice president’s involvement in that controversial affair has garnered far less attention. “The criminal investigation of Bush was regrettably incomplete,” wrote Special Counsel Lawrence Walsh, a former deputy attorney general in the Eisenhower administration, in his final report on the Iran-Contra affair in August 1993.

Why? Because Bush, who was “fully aware of the Iran arms sale,” according to the special counsel, failed to hand over a diary “containing contemporaneous notes relevant to Iran/contra” and refused to be interviewed in the later stages of the investigation. In the final days of his presidency, Bush even issued pardons to six defendants in the Iran-Contra affair, including former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger — on the eve of Weinberger’s trial for perjury and obstruction of justice. “The Weinberger pardon,” Walsh pointedly noted, “marked the first time a president ever pardoned someone in whose trial he might have been called as a witness, because the president was knowledgeable of factual events underlying the case.” An angry Walsh accused Bush of “misconduct” and helping to complete “the Iran-contra cover-up.”

For those who suffer from extreme cases of Trump derangement syndrome, there is no relevant history worth considering before the dire election results of 2016. But for those not stricken dumb by Trump hysteria, there is a lot that can be gleaned from previous presidential regimes.

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Brilliant Idea From Missoulian Op-Ed To Have A Discussion About Homelessness 

by William Skink

I am so god damn excited that Missoula is going to have a discussion about homelessness.

Yep, that is what this Missoulian editorial is calling for, a discussion, and not just any discussion, but one that includes the “larger community” in Missoula.

After the preventable emergency that resulted from a chronic lack of prioritization by those who control the budget of our fair city is dealt with, band-aid style, here is how the Missoulian described the next step:

The next step is to get the entire community involved in an ongoing discussion about how to better identify, coordinate and meet the needs of our homeless and at-risk residents before they reach the point of crisis.

Missoula does have a plan, Reaching Home: Missoula’s 10-Year Plan to End Homelessness, adopted in 2012, which aims to provide permanent housing solutions. It also has an Office of Housing and Community Development headed by a director with plenty of experience and expertise on the local homeless situation: Eran Pehan is a former executive director of the Poverello Center.

Going by the decreased number of homeless folks in Missoula despite the housing affordability, these efforts appear to be working. So how did this winter’s emergency arise? And what should Missoula do to better help our homeless in the future? That’s just one of many questions that need to be discussed in depth, not just by the experts and volunteers working to help Missoula’s homeless, but by the larger community.

I hope the larger Missoula community is as god damn excited as I am about this discussion, especially as the majority of this larger community voted to make housing more expensive with the Open Space Bond last month.

The first problem that needs to be addressed is the presumption that the amount of homeless people in Missoula is decreasing. I do not believe that is actually the case, and I further believe the Mayor’s office knows the numbers they are using from the point-in-time survey do not accurately reflect the reality of homelessness in Missoula.

How many active names are on the Coordinated Entry System’s by-name list? It’s important to say “active” because if you, as a homeless person, aren’t calling 211 every month to let them know you are still homeless, you become “inactive”. Either that number, or the number of unduplicated homeless individuals served by the Poverello Center for overnight shelter would give a more accurate picture of homelessness in Missoula.

Those numbers exist. If I was a reporter, I would be curious what those numbers are.

Another question I would ask, were I reporter, is what was actually accomplished during the first 4 years Michael Moore was the director of the 10 year plan to end homelessness? My opinion, which comes from direct experience, is that Michael was not qualified to move the plan forward, but no one else wanted the job, so he got it. Combine that with a lack of supervision from the leadership of United Way, and you get 4 years of nothing much getting accomplished.

If people in our larger Missoula community want to know how we got to the winter of 2018 without a better plan to keep people from dying of exposure, I am available and open to any and all educational opportunities. Hit me up at willskink at yahoo dot com.

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Salvation Army Must First Appease Inclusivity Zealots Before Covering For Secular Government Failure

by William Skink

I’ve been deliberately refraining from an immediate reaction to Missoula City Council’s interim zoning vote last Friday. I enjoyed the Thanksgiving break with friends and family and let my thoughts stew for a bit.

I had talked to someone at the Salvation Army before the holiday break, so I knew the vote was just one step in a longer, very uncertain process of raising money, hiring staff and creating rules for a program to serve some very challenging people with complicated histories and illnesses.

Sure enough, the reporting after the vote puts the monetary goal to be raised at $25,000. City Council appropriates that amount of money all the time to do things like study traffic, but apparently it’s just too damn late to find that kind of money:

Ward 5 Councilwoman Julie Armstrong asked the mayor if the city could provide any of the $25,000. The answer, via Development Services was no – primarily because all suitable grant funding already has been allocated by the granting agencies.

If the Salvation Army were to again provide shelter next winter, and the city knew that likelihood well in advance, the request could be included in the next round of grant applications.

What bullshit. Our elected leaders should have known since last March that an alternative to the Union Gospel Mission was needed to provide a warming space because it was City Fire that shut down both UGM and the subsequent effort at the Salvation Army after a long winter of looking the other way.

Instead of our secular local government getting any of the well-deserved criticism from Missoula residents for being unprepared for what winter in Montana means for the unsheltered, I found myself unprepared (and disgusted) by a social media backlash against the Salvation Army for not being inclusive.

Apparently Missoula do-gooders are more worried about a faith-based organization being inclusive than they are about people becoming dead human ice cubes on the side walks of our fair city.

To appease this waste-of-time response by morally selective assholes, the Salvation Army has pledged to be inclusive:

Leaders of the Salvation Army in Missoula on Monday emphasized that the overnight shelter they’ve pledged to open for the city’s homeless population will welcome all who come through the door.

The assurances came amid criticism on social media from local residents who believe the organization carries a Christian bias and discriminates against members of the LGBTQ community.

Not true, came the reply from Capt. Ryan Boyd, who manages the Salvation Army’s facility on Russell Street with her husband, Josh.

“The Salvation Army is open and inclusive to all people,” Boyd said in a written message.

Will this be enough for the critics, or would they like to further leverage the lives of chronically homeless people in order to impose their agenda of (selective) inclusivity?

I’ll be writing more on this, and have a first draft of a letter to the editor I’m trying to cut down because 200 words is not enough to express my deep disappointment and frustration over this topic.

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Bring Your Babies To War

by William Skink

I think it’s great Donald Trump has brazenly continued backing Saudi Arabia and explicitly tied that support to the US devotion to Israel.

We are the true troika of terrorism, so let’s bring our babies to war!

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What Will Missoula Get With Trump’s Opportunity Zone?

by William Skink

For all the opposition to Trump in liberal bastions like Missoula, money is still more important than ideology, so don’t expect any concern from city officials to be raised over the Opportunity Zone scheme unleashed by Trump’s tax cuts.

While the pie-in-the-sky hope is that the benevolent private sector will bankroll affordable housing projects in Missoula’s Opportunity Zone, it might be instructive to read this Intercept article about Amazon’s recent announced new locations and how opportunity zones will play a role in the changes that will be brought to these regions:

Supporters claim opportunity zones spur renewal and revitalization in impoverished areas. It’s a decades-old bipartisan fantasy that sits uncomfortably at odds with the demonstrated results. Researchers who have studied opportunity zones find that these tax schemes rarely ever help cities, and often financially cripple them.

“At best, they divert investment from one part of the city from another, resulting in no net gain for the city as a whole,” wrote Timothy Weaver, an urban policy and politics professor at the University of Albany, last year. “At worst, they result in tax-giveaways to firms that would have been operating anyway, thereby generating a net loss to city revenues.”

Still, Republicans and Democrats are loathe to give up on what they continually tell themselves can be a win-win for everyone, if we just try really hard. And now a major beneficiary of this federal largesse happens to be one of the world’s richest companies, led by the world’s richest man.

I don’t see much opposition or really even much awareness in Missoula over how these engines of gentrification are ramping up, and how hollow the promises of help for poor neighborhoods really are.

Instead, Missoula’s political leadership (and upstart online media platform) are bordering on the tech solves everything mantra. On Democracy Now, two segments seem relevant to Missoula’s tech-sector obsession. Here’s a snippet of a conversation between Amy Goodman and Ron Kim, member of the New York State Assembly. Kim recently contributed to an opinion piece for The New York Times titled “New York Should Say No to Amazon.”:

AMY GOODMAN: So, New York State Assemblymember Ron Kim, if you could respond to the mayor and also this Business Insider report? Amazon is going to be placed in Long Island City in Queens. “Long Island City real estate brokers told The Wall Street Journal [that] they had witnessed a flurry of inquiries over the past week. Some of these people were even buying units, sight-unseen, via text message, The Journal wrote on Tuesday morning.” “This is the first time in my 20-year career that I have seen the market go from a buyer’s market to a seller’s market overnight, based on a rumor,” said Patrick Smith, a Stribling agent in New York City, a real estate agent. So, if you could respond to both this, what de Blasio is saying, a massive growth in the tech sector and jobs, good jobs, for New York’s kids and students and people in this city, and what’s going to happen to real estate?

ASSEMBLYMEMBER RON KIM: I think this is a great example of a misguided technocratic Democrat who is hiding behind big tech and pushing out the narrative to the public that the big tech will solve every single problem in our communities and to humankind. That is not the case. This is a clear example of how big tech artificially raises value. This isn’t real value. As Stacy has said, real value comes from innovation, creativity, small business, local economies, circulation of wealth at the very bottom of our economies. That’s not happening. Amazon, Uber, you name it, all of this is all based on an extraction economy that is designed to extract as much money and value out of our communities, and it’s not going to add to sustainable job growth or economic growth.

For more on the public subsidies Amazon will be getting, here is how another segment from Democracy Now begins:

After a months-long PR campaign, Amazon has officially announced it will split its so-called second headquarters between New York and Arlington, Virginia, outside Washington, D.C., after being offered more than $3 billion in tax breaks and other incentives. The news prompted protests at the site of Amazon’s future office complex in Long Island City, New York, to condemn the city and state governments for showering Amazon with massive tax breaks and other giveaways to entice the company to expand into the city. As part of the deal, New York taxpayers will even build a helipad for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who is the richest man in the world.

When I wrote Missoula, You Cannot Have It All late last week I was in part reacting to news of City Council scrambling to pass an interim zoning ordinance to accommodate the homeless population the Poverello Center can’t serve.

I am very angry that amidst all this development in Missoula–with condos everywhere, new parks, new schools, a new library, new trails, pedestrian bridges, art parks and play waves–the chronically homeless, who often have substance abuse masking mental health problems, continue to be a forgotten side-note until the cold sets in.

On my Facebook page I expressed my frustration that the lack of action from the Mayor and City Council is a failure to prioritize efforts to keep people from dying on the streets of Missoula. I was offered an opportunity by the Housing Director to get educated on efforts I am not reading about in the paper. I declined.

Instead I’m considering writing an op-ed to educate Missoulians about why this community continues to fail to plug obvious, long-known gaps and how the Mayor’s office is actively down-playing the problem by using numbers that don’t accurately reflect what’s going on.

Stay tuned…

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Missoula, You Cannot Have It All

by William Skink

Missoula’s political leadership likes to pretend we can have everything. We can have more open spaces, more development, more tech-sector investment, and more affordable housing. The problem? The problem is reality, and the reality is that no, we cannot have everything we want.

Last May I wrote about a new euphemism for gentrification, called an opportunity zone. These opportunity zones were a result of the Trump tax cut legislation, which snuck this little provision in the bill to provide “…an incentive for people to reinvest capital gains into low-income areas and thereby avoid the capital gains tax.

The Missoula Current has a new article up about a completely hypothetical use of this opportunity zone, reporting that it “could” include affordable housing, but the reality is the city won’t have any say beyond normal regulatory authority to determine what the private sector will be able to do with their redirected capital gains:

A new investment tool included in last year’s tax bill could bring affordable housing and commercial development to Missoula’s West Broadway corridor and areas to the north.

The census tract was identified by the state as a so-called opportunity zone – a new incentive adopted by Congress that allows taxpayers to invest in a qualified opportunity fund and defer tax payments on capital gains.

“The city can encourage through goal setting and visioning what we’d like to see in that area, but ultimately, it’s a completely private tool,” said Eran Pehan, manager of the city’s Office on Housing and Community Development.

What I suspect will happen in this zone is there will be private sector investment, but not to build affordable housing. Instead nasty motels like The Colonial and the Sleepy Inn will be razed to the ground and the housing these motels provided won’t be replaced.

Gentrification is also knocking on the threshold of the Hip Strip, with the owners of the Montaignes looking at a total overhaul of their historic property, which is apparently a mess. This will be another loss to the stock of affordable housing in Missoula.

And Midtown is also getting some attention for possible master planning:

City leaders have sat down with a group of property owners to begin discussing the possibility of master planning a multi-block section of Midtown as efforts to reinvent the district intensify, Mayor John Engen said.

While rumors of a potential move by at least one major business in the district couldn’t be confirmed, Engen did say that several property owners have turned to the city to discuss the area’s potential, and what could be achieved with planning.

“They have expressed interest in having the Missoula Redevelopment Agency work with them on some master planning and a little dreaming about what could be,” Engen told the Missoula Current. “We’ve had property owners of significant parcels and folks interested at the table.”

Meanwhile, for those at risk of dying for lack of shelter, Missoula’s City Council is going to have to show up on the Friday after Thanksgiving in order to expedite an “Interim Zoning Ordinance” in order to allow the Salvation Army to keep people from dying of exposure. For some on City Council, it’s apparently annoying to be asked to do this on such short notice.

I guess this cold weather Montana thing kinda snuck up on them, despite last February the Poverello Center explicitly stating there are limits to how many people they can shelter.

If homelessness was actually a priority for our city leaders, they wouldn’t be surprised that the dire situation of last winter has not been addressed in the slightest.

I’ve been writing about this continued failure to prioritize the needed planning/funding because I see the lack of preparation. I literally wrote a post in August titled What will happen to Missoula’s Chronic homeless population when it gets cold?

So it pisses me off to read this:

Councilman Bryan von Lossberg said the request came in only on Friday, so he was surprised that city staff was able to put the ordinance together so quickly that it could be introduced Wednesday.

“Taking no action puts lives at risk,” von Lossberg said.

Normally, the City Council would have to wait until Nov. 26 to approve the interim ordinance because public hearings must be announced seven days in advance. Since the announcement goes out Thursday, the end of a seven-day period lands right on the Thanksgiving holiday.

Temperatures are soon predicted to drop into the teens, so Councilwoman Julie Armstrong asked if anything could be to speed up approval. Since the seven-day notice is required by law, Armstrong asked how many might be available at 3 p.m. on the Friday after Thanksgiving. Seven council members raised their hands, enough to approve the temporary action.

Having done what they could to address the urgency, some council members said the proposal for next winter should be made earlier.

How about instead of city leaders condescending to the overwhelmed service providers on the front lines that they should ask for zoning ordinance changes earlier, you elected civic leaders of our community ADDRESS THE FUCKING PROBLEM?

I would love to see more time and resources directed toward plugging the gaping holes in the support net and less time and resources directed toward turning this valley into a crammed, congested inland silicon valley.

But I’m not holding my breath.

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