Missoula taxpayers asked to fund additional resources for fire department (2024)

Last weekend, Andy Drobeck filled out his primary election ballot more carefully than ever before.

Drobeck, president of the Missoula firefighters union, said he was nervous to see the fire department’s levy on the back side of the ballot.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘It would suck if this failed because people don’t flip their ballots over,’” he said. “It wouldn’t just not be a step forward, it would be a step backward as well.”

The 34-mill levy would pay for 20 new firefighters, a sixth station, equipment and the mobile support team, which responds to behavioral-health-related calls countywide, according to the fire department. At current rates, the levy would raise $7 million in the first year, with the owner of a $300,000 home paying $138 and the owner of a $600,000 home paying $276.

On March 4, the Missoula City Council unanimously approved placing the levy on the primary ballot at the request of the fire department and its union. The levy was originally set to appear on the ballot last November, but the council voted to hold off, citing uncertainty and apprehension around upcoming property tax bills.

While Missoula’s population and city limits have grown significantly in the last 15 years, the fire department hasn’t added new firefighters since 2008, Drobeck said. Emergency calls have nearly doubled from about 6,000 to 11,000 annually, and response times have increased.

The fire department’s average response time to medical emergencies is about two minutes and 30 seconds longer than the six-minute industry standard, Fire Chief Gordy Hughes said in February. At eight minutes and 39 seconds, the department takes about two minutes and 20 seconds longer to respond to structure fires than the standard, he said.

Hughes said simultaneous calls about 50% of the time mean firefighters often respond from other districts, further increasing response time.

“When we’re getting consistent calls throughout the day it’s not a huge deal, but when they come in flurries, we struggle to get to calls in a timely manner,” Drobeck said. “On a daily or every-other-day basis, every resource will be out at some point when another call comes in.”

Continuing on that trajectory is scary, Drobeck said. A few weeks ago, every engine was in station four’s district around North Reserve Street, and it would have taken a long time to respond to a call on the opposite end of town or in the Rattlesnake, he said.

Adding a sixth engine company would provide relief and get the department moving in the right direction, Drobeck said.

“When we’re getting consistent calls throughout the day it’s not a huge deal, but when they come in flurries, we struggle to get to calls in a timely manner.”

Andy Drobeck, Missoula firefighters union

If the levy fails, the city’s general fund will remain the only consistent funding source for fire and emergency services, according to the city. State law limits how much the city can increase property tax revenue, and public safety makes up the majority of the general fund, making it difficult to cut other services to increase funding for fire services, according to the department.

The levy’s failure would also threaten the future of the mobile support team, which doesn’t have a permanent funding source, Drobeck said. The city and county started the crisis response program three years ago using grants and federal pandemic relief money that’s no longer available.

Losing the program would put the approximately 2,000 calls the mobile support team responds to annually back on the police and fire departments, Drobeck said.

“Not only would that be heading in the wrong direction, but we’d have all of a sudden an immediate increase to call volume from what they are responding to,” he said.

John Petroff, team operations manager, said the levy would secure the program and allow it to expand services beyond the current 10-hour shifts.

Funding from the state in the form of Medicaid reimbursem*nt money and a new grant from the $300 million lawmakers set aside to overhaul the state’s mental health system will hopefully keep the program running through 2025, Petroff said. The program’s annual expenses are about $1.4 million, he said.

The Behavioral Health System for Future Generations Commission allocated $7.5 million of the funds set aside by House Bill 872 for mobile crisis response and crisis receiving centers. The state is still finalizing the grants, but Missoula will receive up to $1.2 million through December 2025, Petroff said.

A stable source of funding from the levy would provide job security and help staff retention, Petroff said. The team is fully staffed after a year of bringing employees on board and training them, taking a big load off the program, he said.

“It just feels like there’s a lot less to accomplish. We can start just running calls and do what we’re there to do,” Petroff said.

While the team previously went out on most calls with law enforcement, it’s now responding without other agencies about 53% of the time, Petroff said. Freeing up other first responders is a huge benefit of the mobile support team, he said.

“Having that correct response, the response that can really take the time and help people navigate a mental health challenge and what they need in the moment, is so important,” Petroff said.

The team is collaborating with 911 and 988, the national suicide and crisis line, to establish the best use of the mobile team and other community resources, Petroff said. Since opening in December, the Riverwalk Crisis Center has provided another place to take people in crisis, helping bridge previous gaps in care, he said.

Along with these resources, getting the mobile crisis team to 24-hour availability would provide the “correct response” for the community, Petroff said. Stable funding from the levy would help work toward expanding service hours, he said.

“We want to keep making sure we’re moving forward,” Petroff said. “We’re not trying to build more right now, we’re trying to sustain what we have. If everything goes the way it could [with the levy], there are possibilities of getting to the next step.”

Missoula taxpayers asked to fund additional resources for fire department (1)

While most Missoula residents say they support the fire department, Drobek said a yes vote is the support the department needs right now.

The fire department exhausted its strategies to alleviate staffing and other issues before asking for a levy, Drobeck said.

The most common concern Drobeck has heard from residents is the inability to keep up with rising taxes, he said. That concern is understandable, especially for those on a fixed income, but improving fire department services is worth the money, Drobeck said.

“It really is an insurance policy. Insurance is expensive, … and you pay because you know that at some point something is going to happen when you need to use it,” he said. “Everybody at some point in their life will call 911 and need it. When we’re there and can do our jobs, it’s worth the 50-cent cost.”

If the levy passes, a home at Missoula County’s 2023 median assessed value of $413,200 would pay about $189.66 per year, or 52 cents per day, according to the city.

Drobeck encouraged residents to turn in their ballots, especially if they are voting in person on June 4.

“We’re going to need every yes vote we can get to get this thing passed,” he said. “I’m just hoping that when the results come in on election day the sentiment we’ve been getting on the streets is what comes in on the vote, to provide citizens with what we think they expect, a quick response.”

Missoula taxpayers asked to fund additional resources for fire department (2)

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Missoula taxpayers asked to fund additional resources for fire department (2024)
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