Activists call on City Council to address Missoula’s growing economic inequality

Councilman John DiBari thanked the speakers. “I’m glad we were able to hear their thoughts about social inequity and how we choose to spend our money,” he said. “Obviously, there is a robust conversation we can have about all of that, and many of us are interested in having that conversation.” (Missoula Current file photo)

For the second week in a row, a half-dozen young men – most lifelong local residents – came to the Missoula City Council’s Monday night meeting to express their frustration with growing economic inequality.

Many in the group are veterans; one devoted his three minutes of public comment to highlighting the high rate of suicide among Montana vets, an epidemic he linked to economic disparity and social injustice.

All spoke out against the use of tax increment financing, which they believe fattens the pockets of wealthy developers at the expense of lower-income citizens. In particular, they are frustrated by the TIF dollars paid to Nick Checota, who is building a $100 million events center and hotel downtown on the Clark Fork River.

All the young men are angry that, after spending their whole lives here, they cannot make ends meet or afford a home – or sometimes even food. And neither can thousands of other Missoula residents, they said.

Missoula native Brian Miller told council members that, for veterans, “all it takes is a push” to leave them destitute and considering or completing suicide.

As an example, Miller offered the story of a friend who took his own life, motivated at least in part by “economic desperation.”

The man had a newborn baby, then had his dramatically hours cut at work. He didn’t know where to turn.

“You know who he was working for at the time of his suicide?” Miller said. “Our beloved Wisconsin millionaire, Nick Checota.”

“Economic desperation contributes to rising suicide statistics and demonstrates how most of us are barely making it in this community,” he said. “All it takes is a push.”

Miller, who said he served eight years in the U.S. Army infantry, called the use of TIF to reimburse developers for public infrastructure a “giveaway.”

Veterans return home, he said, “only to find our communities have been sold to the rich by our civilian neighbors.”

“Before you thank me for my service,” Miller said, “think about how you may be contributing to the epidemic of suicide through the use of tax increment financing.”

Brandon Bryant, who was a staff sergeant in the U.S. military, traces his Missoula roots to his grandparents. “My grandfather led the Hellgate High School wrestling team to its only championship,” he said.

Bryant called for an investigation into the ethical conduct of the City Council and the mayor “and anyone else promoting the TIF projects going on in this city.”

The use of tax increments, he said, are “in violation of the community trust and the legacy that my grandparents and my family put into this town.”

Bryant said he is “distraught by the corruption” and wonders if affordable housing is even possible in a capitalistic society.

Brian West told council members that if they support tax increment financing, “you are declaring yourself an enemy of the people.”

“TIFs lie at the very heart of what Bernie Sanders means when he talks about privatized gains and socialized losses,” West said. “As we all know, if the only tool you have is hammer, then every problem tends to look like a nail. And the Missoula Redevelopment Agency continues to smash the community of Missoula apart with the overwhelming destructive power of tax increment financing.”

“Those of us from Missoula don’t think that it needs to be redeveloped,” West said.

Many Americans, he said, tolerate inequality – but that’s “only because they overestimate their odds of coming out on top. More and more of us are realizing the truth than ever before. The people you are screwing over are the people you depend on – the people who cook your meals, haul your trash, connect your calls, drive your ambulances, who guard you while you sleep.”

The men left the City Council meeting shortly after speaking, and a half hour passed before council members had their opportunity to respond.

Councilwoman Heidi West said $1.59 million in TIF dollars have helped provide permanently affordable housing in Missoula, “and that does not include financing for the food bank or the Poverello or the YWCA housing – because those aren’t considered low-income housing.”

Council president Bryan von Lossberg said he appreciated West’s comments. “I have mentioned on several occasions a number of projects,” he said.

Von Lossberg added, though, that “I truly understand the issue that folks see across the country when it comes to income inequality and the things that flow from that.”

“At the same time, we should remember that tax increment financing is used for reimbursable expenses,” von Lossberg said. “It is not a giveaway to anybody, and the expenses that are covered are expenses that are deemed to be for the public benefit. They are things like the public right of way, deconstruction versus demolition and the value we place on that from a number of standpoints, just to name a few.”

Affordable housing projects like the Scott Street subdivision developed on Missoula’s Northside by Edgell Builders received tax increments, he said. “And it is absolutely clear that that project would not exist without the tax increment financing investment in water and sewer and basic infrastructure that makes a housing project like that even possible.”

Without the investment of TIF dollars, it would be “far, far more expensive,” von Lossberg said.

Councilman John DiBari thanked “the folks who came down this evening to speak. I’m glad we were able to hear their thoughts about social inequity and how we choose to spend our money. And I appreciate the follow-up from my colleagues on the council.

“Obviously, there is a robust conversation we can have about all of that, and many of us are interested in having that conversation.”