Flathead residents voice concerns about housing and mental health at listening session hosted by state lawmakers
Flathead residents voice concerns about housing and mental health at listening session hosted by state lawmakers

Flathead Valley residents expressed frustration with property taxes, a lack of affordable housing and a broken mental health system during a listening session hosted by Democratic state lawmakers Tuesday.

“We may not have all the answers, even though you may think we do, and some lawmakers may think they do,” Congresswoman Mary Cafero, D-Helena, said during the session in Columbia Falls. causing laughter from the crowd.

The session was part of a listening tour of Democratic legislatures across the country. Lawmakers in attendance Tuesday included Congressman Dave Fern, D-Whitefish, Sen. Mary Ann Dunwell, D-Helena, and Caferro.

The purpose of the listening tour was not to host a candidate forum or participate in a question-and-answer session, elected officials said.

“We really just want to listen,” Caferro said.

Concerned residents addressed multiple topics during the session, the main one being housing costs and availability.

Bob Horn, a Whitefish resident and retired city planner, expressed concern about Senate Bill 528, which would require cities to legally permit accessory housing units. Horne argued that the legislation does not positively impact valley communities.

The housing issue, on all sides, stems from “how incredibly expensive life has become for middle-class Americans,” according to Mike Iopek, a former Democratic lawmaker who attended the meeting.

Everything costs more, Iopek said, especially housing. The Republican supermajority has only made it worse, he said, citing property tax hikes.

“[The supermajority is] fools… They have forgotten that we are all Montanans,” Jopek told the group.

Columbia Falls resident Marisa Getts also expressed concern about the housing market — particularly with regards to home financing. According to Getts, the state needs better options for first-time home buyers.

“I think the state can play a really, really unique role in creative financing structures and financing products for affordable housing, especially for starter housing, if people are willing to rethink what that looks like,” Gets said, referring to quad complexes, small apartment units and other low-cost structures.

Mental health and the lack of infrastructure around it was also a topic of interest to community members.

Andy Hudak, a mental health specialist in the valley, cited mental health as a major concern. Providers often have difficulty accessing funds that could help them, and there is generally a lack of state assistance, he said.

Hudak, from a provider perspective, asked lawmakers to communicate more clearly when dealing with mental health progress, programs or institutions.

Mallory Phillips, who is graduating this year with a degree in social work, echoed Hudak’s sentiment. According to Phillips, property taxes, affordable housing, food security, mental health and other issues are intertwined. In order to improve mental health in the state, these other adjacent issues must also be addressed.

“We are in a mental health crisis in the Valley,” Phillips said.

Kyle Waterman, a former legislative candidate and board chair of the Western Montana Mental Health Center, called for more communication from the state about mental health resources.

Having served on the Kalispell City Council, Waterman said he knows people want these services to be available.

Others raised concerns about the Columbia Falls Aluminum Company Superfund site, campaign finance transparency, school funding, contaminated wells and teacher pay.

The face-to-face session is designed for Democratic lawmakers to hear the public’s concerns about where the state is headed. The tour was expected to head to the Flathead Indian Reservation and Ravalli County after the Columbia Falls stop on March 26.

The legislative listening tour began last summer in Great Falls and traveled over 11,579 miles across the state. At the end of the tour, the Montana Democratic Party is expected to present a report on what was learned.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at [email protected] or 758-4459.

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