What’s More Important, Missoula’s Image or Its Citizens?

by lizard

Earlier this month, Missoulian reporter Martin Kidston wrote a sort of ridiculous piece about “Missoula time” and how this alleged concept of “just chilling” may explain Missoula’s economic stagnation. Though the framing Kidston uses is a bit ridiculous, the complicated issue of Missoula’s economic woes is not. Contrasting Bozeman with Missoula, Kidston makes some interesting observations:

As goes UM, so goes Missoula. It works the other way around as well; it’s a symbiotic dance we can’t escape.

The symptoms of stagnation are all around us, punctuated perhaps by the Missoula Mercantile, which sits empty year after year. Bozeman, in contrast, reports a downtown vacancy rate of just 5 percent.

Looking for other comparisons? Why does the proposed Hotel Fox in Missoula get pushed back while Bozeman approved and will soon see construction begin on a new eight-story, 102-room hotel, making it the tallest building in the city?

“A downtown has to change or it dies,” Bozeman Deputy Mayor Jeff Krauss told the Daily Chronicle. “You see small towns fading away everywhere. We are not one of them.”

This isn’t pointing blame at our local leaders. Rather, I’d like to ask the larger question: What does Missoula want to become and how (and when) will it find its new post-recession identity?

I think a lot of Missoulians would like to see themselves as part of an idyllic liberal college town where we buy healthy food at the farmer’s market and recreate in the wilderness. This is the image of Missoula found in outdoor magazines. For those with the money to make this image their reality, it’s great.

A lot of recent conflicts stem from how Missoula leaders have decided to respond to issues that deviate from the ideal image. From what I have seen, it appears our city leaders are more interested in protecting the image than they are in understanding and addressing the issues.

Chronic homelessness is therefore framed as a debilitating phenomenon disproportionately impacting downtown businesses, and resources are allocated to specifically police the issue. Of course, having their own police officer was deemed insufficient, so businesses decided to push for more, and in their misguided attempt to deal with aggressive behavior, they advocated for ordinances that would criminalize sitting on downtown sidewalks.

Then there are the systemic problems with how our justice system responds to accusations of sexual assault and domestic violence. While some of our leaders have taken steps to improve how victims who come forward to report crimes are treated, the Missoula County attorney’s office, headed by Van Valkenburg, is resisting accountability, and putting taxpayers on the hook.

In tough economic times, societal problems, like substance abuse and domestic violence, increase. This Huffington Post article from two years ago makes that very point:

A new survey by the nonprofit Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) has found that police departments across the country are encountering more instances of domestic violence related to the poor economy, USA Today reports.

More than half of the 700 law enforcement agencies polled for the survey reported seeing a rise in “domestic conflicts” related to the economy during 2011, according to USA Today. That’s a sharp increase from the numbers reported in a similar 2010 survey, when 40 percent of agencies reported seeing an increase in such cases.

Scott Thompson, the Chief of Police in Camden, N.J., spoke to the paper about the survey results and said that his city saw a 20 percent increase in domestic incidents and a 10 percent increase in domestic-related aggravated assaults from 2010 to 2011. Thompson noted that the unemployment rate in the city is currently 19 percent.

“When stresses in the home increase because of unemployment and other hardships, domestic violence increases,” Thomson told the paper. “We see it on the street.”

In today’s Missoulian, this article looks at the same issue, and despite significant increases in reported incidents of domestic abuse, there has been a decrease in cases filed and a decrease in offenders enrolled in court-ordered programs:

According to the Montana Board of Crime Control, violent crime is on the rise – a factor that law enforcement attributes to the recession and the community’s slow economic recovery. When frustrations about money – or the lack thereof – run high, violence in the home is a real concern, explained Deputy Missoula County Attorney Jason Marks.

“I can’t tell you how many (partner/family member assaults) I’ve read where they were arguing about money and it escalated radically from there,” he said.

Missoula County prosecutors filed 132 partner/family member assault cases in 2011, but by 2013 there were only 94 cases on the docket.

That’s a 30 percent decrease in filings.

The city of Missoula’s numbers are similar. In 2011 and 2012, there were 241 and 250 cases, respectively. In 2013, the number of domestic violence cases filed by prosecutors decreased to 187.

The sharp decline could be attributed to more crimes being charged as a higher felony with stricter penalties and longer probationary period, Marks explained.

He doesn’t see the decrease as a problem.

A heightened awareness of domestic violence could be the reason the number of law enforcement reports of partner/family member assault are up, Marks said. He also argues that there’s not a direct correlation between law enforcement reports and cases filed in court.

Doesn’t see the decrease as a problem? Really? Here’s more:

Neither city or county prosecutors could account for the falling number of convicted offenders enrolled in the CAVE and MAN programs.

Scott noted that some offenders are Native American and attend counseling sessions on the Flathead Reservation. Missoula Municipal Court, he said, routinely orders petitions to revoke to make those shrugging off their mandatory counseling enroll in the programs.

“But we don’t handhold them and walk them down there ourselves,” he said.

He said a grant from the Montana Board of Crime Control in 2011 has evolved to help the city court keep tabs on convicted abusers by ordering more petitions to revoke and applying a period of misdemeanor probation.

A study conducted that year by the Missoula Office of Planning and Grants concluded that seven out of 10 people sentenced to anger management classes for domestic violence charges didn’t complete them.

When you contrast this information with how downtown businesses want to increase accountability for the discomforting behavior of people suffering from addiction and mental illness, something is seriously fucked up.

So what do we want to protect, Missoula? Our image, or our citizens?

  1. Thanks, Lizard, for staying on top of this issue, The inadequate response of the police and mental health services is very troubling.

    Lots of good nationwide data on how the presence of higher education infrastructure in municipalities promotes economic growth. So why is Missoula an aberration?

  2. Kidsten’s piece wasn’t ridiculous. It was reality. Sorry to state that like that, Liz, but that’s #truth.

    Missoula has this opinion that they’re the best and that they don’t need to look at how other places do it and that they can, essentially, reinvent the wheel.

    The city has floundered under Engen leadership, but people are too tied up in the fact that he’s a funny guy to get out an actual scorecard at election time. And it doesn’t fall all on him either.

    His attempts, now, to institute a “law and police special taxing district” is just another example of this city’s failure to run this city. I’ll note, also, that the proposed special district surely comes on top of the 2 1/2% annual increase that the Mayor told us last year that we’ll all just have to accept.

    Kidsten was 100% correct, but until people get their friendships out of play, Missoula will continue to founder while Bozeman excels over us.

    And it’s Missoula that has a river running through it. For shame.

    • lizard19

      I think Kidston makes good points, but his piece uses the anecdotal advice from an acquaintance about “Missoula time” to build his opinion on—an opinion that seems to posit Billings has nothing but positive economic growth from the Bakken boom. I’m not sure he’s 100% correct on that point.

  3. Buzz Feedback

    I don’t have anything deep or insightful to add beyond the observation that this town is way past fukked.

    Have a successful day.

  4. JC

    There’s a quip in some circles:

    “You can’t save your face and your ass at the same time.”

    Seems appropriate for Missoula right about now.

    And also, for Kidston’s information, there’s three buildings in Bozeman taller than 8 stories, all dormitories on campus. I know — I used to live in, and party-hardy on the eleventh story of one in my misguided youth.

    Not that an 8 story hotel wouldn’t help Bozeman polish its image as it prepares to bid for the 2026 Olympics, but it still ain’t nothing compared to Billings’ 20+ story monstrosity — the Crowne Plaza.

  5. Red Penny

    Insightful comments all around. One thing: Missoula is not nor never will be Camden, NJ. Camden is the shame of this country. http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/news/apocalypse-new-jersey-a-dispatch-from-americas-most-desperate-town-20131211

  6. Missoula’s image has always changed, as has its people. Sometimes we have a peace sign on the hill, sometimes we don’t. We used to throw a monumental kegger, now we don’t. At times we flaunt our ‘Berkeley of the north” image, other times we try to hide it in the closet.

    In my mind the economics are the biggest concern. I’ve heard people in houses across the street from me yelling late at night when I’m smoking outside, and like you say, it’s probably about money a lot of the times.

    I’m like most people living here: each month I start over from scratch. Yeah, I somehow manage to pay all my bills, but come the first week of the new month that bank account’s empty and the long, hard climb begins again. And saving for the future? Like many, it’s hard to look any further than when that next rent check’s due.

    Those are issues that affect far more people in Missoula than transients or DUIs or sexual assaults, in my opinion. And it’s an issue that people suffer under quietly. There’s a lot of shame being poor, but we shouldn’t be afraid to let others know we’re struggling so we can address this issue.

    How? We have to find new sources of income for the state besides taxes and resources. To do that I think we have to stop turning our backs on the future so we can dwell so much on the past.

    If you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, then how come that’s all we got running this state?

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