By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current
Citing growth in certain parts of Missoula, members of the City Council on Wednesday began looking at adjusting several city wards to achieve a population balance ahead of the next census.
Every 10 years, ward boundaries are adjusted based upon official census data. In the interim years, however, the council considers changes to ward boundaries based upon estimated population growth derived from new building permits.
Mike Haynes, director of Development Services, said changes were last made in 2015 when wards 1 and 2 were adjusted to maintain alignment. This time, the council will consider changes to wards 2, 4 and 6.
“There’s pretty good variation in there,” said Haynes. “Wards 1, 3 and 5 remain in alignment, but wards 2 and 6 are over, and Ward 4 is under.”
Current estimates placed the city’s population at more than 73,000 people. The population per ward should range from roughly 11,820 to 12,550, though new residential construction focused primarily in wards 2, 3 and 6 have thrown the numbers out of balance.
According to city figures, growth in Ward 6 has resulted in a population of more than 12,608 people, or 1,551 more residents than it had in 2010. Ward 2 has also grown by 2,527 residents to a total population of 12,679 people.
In contrast, Ward 4 has grown by just 183 people since 2010, making it the smallest ward by population at 11,505. Boundary adjustments would bring the three wards back into alignment, Haynes said.
Future building trends and the result of the 2020 census are likely to change the boundaries again.
“We’re using residential building permits issued in 2015 and 2016 to estimate the number and distribution of the city’s new population,” said Haynes. “Most residential development permitted in those two years will be completed and occupied by the end of 2017.”
As proposed, the current boundary between wards 4 and 6 would be extended west beyond Brooks Street to the Bitterroot Branch rail line. Properties in that area, including Southgate Mall, would leave Ward 6 and move into Ward 4.
“This boundary change is essentially the only option to increase the population of Ward 4 and decrease the population of Ward 6,” said Haynes. “This accounts for everything. There should be diversity by wards.”
“That’s our preferred alternative,” said Haynes. “These two changes would bring all the wards into alignment.”
Wednesday’s discussion passed without a vote. That’s set for a public hearing on March 20 – the latest possible date for the council to take action if the changes are to take effect before the primary election.
Ward 4 council member John DiBari was skeptical of the adjustments to his ward, saying there were better options on the table. With the next census just three years away, the boundaries would most likely change again, causing confusion among constituents, he said.
But Ward 6 council member Emily Bentley saw the changes as a good thing.
“There’s value when you have diversity in your ward,” she said. “When you’re picking up a bunch of people who are different than the current Ward 4, I would see that as a benefit. It benefits both ward representatives to represent different people from different walks of life.”
Reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org