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Voters give the green light to construction of a new fire station in Missoula, MT

Zoe Buchli

Missourian, Mont.

(TNS)

June 5 – Missoula voters approved the fire tax by a wide margin during Tuesday’s primary, giving the city the green light to hire more firefighters, purchase new equipment and build a new station.

According to the Montana Secretary of State’s website, the latest counts showed 63% voting in favor of the levy and 37% voting against it.

“This feels like very strong momentum for us, and I’m really looking forward to the future,” Missoula Fire Chief Gordy Hughes said during a press event Wednesday morning.

This measure allows the city to raise an additional $7 million annually for the fire department budget to support increased firefighting needs, including up to twenty new employees and a sixth station, and permanent funding for the Mobile Support Team (MST). Increases for fire personnel and a new engine will also be covered by levy funds.

Voter turnout for Missoula County was about 39%. Mayor Andrea Davis, Hughes and city council members thanked Missoula voters for passing the measure.

“For us, this fire levy means we can potentially hire 20 new firefighters,” Davis said.

The department has been vocal about the need for the levy as a solution to get overdue funding to Missoula firefighters as call response times decrease. It’s an issue that fire officials say has left the department temporarily without resources to respond to new calls on several occasions. MFD has not had a substantial workforce expansion since 2008, despite Missoula’s population growth.

“Our duties and workload on the streets of Missoula are significant,” Hughes said.

He said MFD has not yet identified an exact location for the sixth station, but the goal is to alleviate call volume burdens on stations 1 and 4, located downtown and on Latimer Street. They are tentatively considering building the new station west of Reserve Street and north of Mullan Road.

“We’re going to look at all aspects to make sure we’re meeting the needs of the community with those response models and the location of that new fire station,” Hughes said.

Money for Missoula’s Mobile Support Team – a crisis response unit that handles mental health and substance abuse calls – is also included in the levy. The team is part of the MFD, but functions as a behavioral response service. It replaces the traditional police response available by calling 911. The MST is run with grant money and American Rescue Plan Act dollars, but has not had an ongoing source of funding until now.

“Having permanent funding for the mobile support team is also a very important part of this,” Ward 5 Councilor Stacie Anderson said Wednesday. She said having the resources to expand the MST will have a noticeable impact on local people.

The levy request received a mixed reception from Missoulians, who shared their frustration with recent property tax increases. A mill tax for fire departments was first proposed by the city last summer, but the Missoula City Council quickly repealed it after residents raised alarms about the tax increases.

The levy will permanently save property taxpayers 34 million. The city estimates property taxes would increase by $46 for a $100,000 home, $138 for a $300,000 home and $276 for a $600,000 home.

City officials said Missoulians won’t see the tax increases from the levy until the next tax cycle. They are also awaiting answers on whether MFD will receive a federal grant for the 20 new hires, which would eliminate the need to dip into levy dollars.

Davis noted that MFD also plays a role in responding to natural disasters in Missoula, especially floods and wildfires caused by a warming climate.

“The city of Missoula prioritizes public safety as number one in almost everything we do, and this is a very good example of that,” Davis said. “We all recognize that we are stressed by the property tax scenario unfolding, and yet we saw overwhelming support for this initiative despite this.”

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