MISSOULA — With the election in the rearview mirror and the canvassing of ballots set to begin, the city's newly elected mayor is gearing up to begin the job she set out for eight months ago when launching her campaign.
As far as elections go, Andrea Davis is batting 1,000%, winning her first and only foray into local politics. She'll be sworn in as Missoula's new mayor on Monday, November 20, 2023, and will officially begin her new job on Tuesday.
“While it's a quick transition out of Homeword, we're prepared for it,” Davis said of her current organization. “On Tuesday, I'll meet with the city's Human Resources and IT. There's a lot of community stakeholders that have been patiently waiting to meet with the new mayor. Those conversations will start as early as Wednesday.”
Davis will take office with a full plate of challenges already in place including housing, affordability, homelessness and a city budget that officials have described as challenged and fiscally unbalanced.
The city increased taxes 9.7% this year and 11% in 2022. At the same time, state appraisal values have skyrocketed and taxpayers are feeling the pressure. Add the cost of inflation for materials, union contracts that call for pay increases annually, and unmet needs for emergency services – including a new fire station – and the next budget will be nothing short of challenging.
“People see what's happening with their property tax bills right now as a direct correlation to the increase in the city's budget. But that's not actually the case,” said Davis. “There's an opportunity for us to continue to communicate what's happening with the full property tax bill and how that relates to Missoula.”
Rising taxes and reform
Davis said she plans to continue what city and county leaders have attempted to do for the last few years – to convince the Montana Legislature that the state's tax system is outdated and in need of reform.
So far, those efforts haven't been successful, but Davis believes reform is still possible.
“We're in a tough situation as local government, because the bulk of the property tax increases aren't going to local government, but we still have escalating costs,” she said. “I'm eager to work with staff on where we'll be able to provide budgetary relief while looking forward to the Legislature in 2025 to see if there are ways we can alleviate some concerns, at least with some of our most vulnerable residents.”
Davis' opponent, Mike Nugent, ran a campaign that also looked to legislative reforms. But he also noted that Missoula has no control over the Legislature, though it does control its own pocketbook and addressing spending at the local level is needed.
Davis said she and Nugent had many areas of agreement during the campaign, and she sees the expertise among some members of City Council as a valuable tool moving forward.
“I'm looking forward to working with (Nugent) on council as we not only look at the city budget and how the city communicates on these things, but as we cue up in preparation for the 2025 legislative session,” Davis said.
She also said some of Missoula's tax issues are locally induced, particularly around the slurry of voter-approved bonds passed in the first two decades of 2000.
“It's something we need to come to grips with. But what's really hard with that, we made a decision on something like Fort Missoula Regional Park a decade ago when our property valuations and appraisals – and correlating property tax situation – was a completely different reality,” she said. “It has put us in a very tough situation today.”
Davis also noted the Missoula Fire Department's need for a new fire station and a fire company to staff it. The station has been needed for years but remains unfunded, and as the Mullan area continues to develop, the fire department's response times are beginning to lag.
Fire officials said they're understaffed and stretched to thin, and the city initially agreed to place a fire levy on the ballot to fund the department's needs. But the levy was eventually pulled from the ballot and the issue remains unsolved.
“This will be one of my first priorities in the first 30 days, to dig in deep on this,” Davis said. “It's clearly an issue we need to address locally and bring it back to the voters as a levy if that's the direction that's chosen. At this point, I don't see any other alternative, but I'm eager to get into the details on this.”
While the election victory is still fresh, Davis is ready to focus her attention on her first few weeks in office. In her first 45 days, she plans to study the issues that are important to her and meet with the city's senior leadership team to discuss a range of issues, from financing to homelessness.
Davis said the city has strong leadership from its staff and its efforts around communications are strong. But in many ways, she said, there's always room for improvement.
“I'd really like to get my feet underneath me and hear from staff about areas they believe are working really well, and things they see as opportunities for change,” Davis said. “I'd like to be able to observe and gain insight from people closest to the work. There are community stakeholders who, throughout the campaign, offered their ideas and concerns. I think it's incumbent upon the mayor to take in all these different perspectives.”
Over the past decade, Davis has directed the nonprofit Homeword, an organization that teaches “homebuyer education and financial skills and creates safe, healthy homes people can afford.”
Davis' role in the housing sector won her the support of many voters, especially those who see housing affordability as an issue. The city already has been working to address the issue and in the past year, it has brought more affordable housing to the market than it did over the past 10 years combined.
Davis said her experience has given her a head start on addressing such challenges. And while a number of solutions are already in place, she looks to hone them and keep moving them forward.
“Fortunately, because of my work in the community, I'm not a stranger to this,” Davis said. “I'll be looking forward to getting up to speed and seeing where we need to take action to keep things moving forward, whether that's executive action as the mayor or an initiative through the City Council.”
Davis added that the reality of her election win began to set in on election night as the results came out. She described the evening as a whirlwind. More recently, she gave her first talk as the newly elected mayor to Mountain Bike Missoula.
Talking about issues outside the campaign was refreshing, she said.
“It's a conversation I haven't had much of a chance to have throughout this campaign because there's a lot of other pressing issues,” she said. “But it was really rewarding. For a place like Missoula that celebrates its recreation culture, not only as a lifestyle but as a business industry and economic driver, it was refreshing to discuss it.”