Montana Editorial Roundup
The Billings Gazette, Oct. 15, on Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s vehicle use:
Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s misuse of a state-leased pickup truck was even more blatantly egregious than we knew last summer.
Thanks to an investigation by Associated Press reporter Amy Beth Hanson in Helena, Montana, newspaper readers now know that a legislative audit revealed only part of the public costs for thousands of miles of personal travel by the first-term secretary.
As reported in the Billings Gazette, Stapleton drove a 2015 GMC Sierra pickup truck leased by the state motor pool from Jan. 1, 2017 to March 1, 2019, at a cost to the state of $19,000, which includes fuel costs.
The state budget office was alerted to Stapleton’s questionable vehicle use in October 2018 when he requested a new state-leased vehicle because of high mileage on the Sierra, which then was 100,000 miles. The budget office responded by emailing the secretary’s office policies outlining appropriate use of state-leased vehicles and declined his replacement request - unless the vehicle was going to be used as law required. Stapleton didn’t respond to the budget office and kept driving the Sierra till the beginning of March.
In June 2019, Lee Montana Newspapers reported a legislative audit found Stapleton violated state policy by driving the truck on trips where he transacted no official state business. The audit covered the period from Jan. 1, 2017 (the day he took office) to June 30, 2018. The audit found that the truck had been used to commute between Helena, where the secretary is required to have a residence, and Billings, where he has a home, on at least 69 days, accounting for about 27,000 miles that should not have been traveled at state expense. Stapleton’s office declined to comment for that news report in June.
In March, after Stapleton was notified of the audit conclusion, he returned the truck to the motor pool. Since then, he has been requesting short-term state vehicle leases when specifically needed for state business travel — instead of keeping a state-funded vehicle for personal use seven days a week.
The legislative audit didn’t examine the use of the GMC Sierra between July 1, 2018 and March 1, 2019, when Stapleton returned it after driving it 67,000 miles in 27 months. The Associated Press reporter requested public documents and researched the secretary’s use of the truck during that nine-month period. Stapleton declined multiple requests to talk to the AP for Hanson’s report.
State policy required Stapleton to verify his mileage and leased vehicle use monthly and to attest that it was driven for official business.
This isn’t a case of an occasional side trip to see the family or friends while on state business. The records indicated that most of the mileage accumulated on days when Stapleton reported no official business anywhere. In one two-day period, Stapleton put 1,000 miles on the truck with no explanation of his destination.
The legislative audit results were transmitted to the Montana Department of Justice, which asked the Helena Police Department to investigate. The Helena city attorney concluded that the one-year statute of limitations had already expired for any misdemeanor offense that might have occurred during the audit period that ended June 30, 2018.
The Helena police apparently weren’t asked to investigate the truck misuse that continued through February of the this year. The one-year statute of limitations hasn’t expired. The amount involved appears to potentially be a felony rather than a misdemeanor, which usually is a maximum of $1,500 in theft.
Stapleton should do the right thing and negotiate a full and fair reimbursement with the state motor pool. We call on the lawmakers in the Interim State Administration and Veterans Affairs Committee to hold him publicly accountable. We ask the SOS oversight committee to put the secretary’s motor pool misuse on its Oct. 29 meeting agenda — and to insist that Stapleton himself appear to address his malfeasance rather than delegating his responsibility to a staff member.
The Missoulian, Oct. 20, on plan to help homeless people in the winter:
With each passing day, winter draws nearer. The days are growing shorter, the nights are getting colder and Missoula still has no plan in place for an emergency homeless shelter.
The situation reached a critical point last winter after the Union Gospel Mission was barred from sheltering the homeless because it didn’t meet city zoning regulations. The Salvation Army stepped up to fill the gap, but only after the Missoula City Council held an emergency meeting to approve a special ordinance granting it permission, and only after the Salvation Army raised $50,000 in funding to cover necessary materials and staffing. The city was not able to contribute because all its funds were already dedicated to other uses.
The Salvation Army made it clear that it would not be able shelter the homeless every winter at its Russell Street location. The Poverello Center homeless shelter, which is a drug- and alcohol-free facility, can temporarily stretch its capacity to shelter up to 200 individuals, but even it has its limits.
And when those limits are met, on the coldest nights of the year, where do Missoula’s homeless go? After nearly a year of discussion, why doesn’t Missoula have a public plan in place already?
Monday evening, the Missoula City Council will hold a public hearing on a proposed ordinance that would make it easier for churches and other groups to set up temporary shelters. The facilities would have to meet building codes, and the operators would be encouraged but not required to share a management plan with the city.
It’s frustrating that it has taken so long to do so little. City leaders should be driving a public discussion of how to help keep our homeless neighbors safe and warm over the coming cold months.
Missoula does have a coordinated entry system and a coordinated process that knits together various social services thanks to the “10 Year Plan to End Homeless” that has been in place since 2012. This plan, which aims to provide a comprehensive response to the diverse factors that cause homelessness, has met with some success in streamlining communication both locally and with other communities in Montana.
Point-in-time surveys show that the number of homeless individuals in Missoula has been decreasing since reaching a peak of 585 in 2014. Similarly, the total number of homeless people in Montana has been on the decline.
However, at last count Missoula has the highest number of homeless out of any community in the state — higher even than Billings, which has a larger overall population — at about 300 individuals.
A recent City Council candidate forum renewed an important discussion about perceptions and facts regarding Missoula’s homeless. At the forum last month Brent Sperry, who is challenging incumbent Mirtha Becerra for a seat in Ward 2, shared his belief that homeless people are drawn to Missoula for its public services, and that building more shelters will only “magnify” the problem.
In response, Reaching Home coordinator Theresa Williams collected directly relevant data and shared it with the Missoulian. It shows that most homeless people in Missoula are originally from Missoula, and that the need exceeds the availability of services.
At the Poverello, 66% of its visitors had a home in Montana before becoming homeless, and 51% of these were in Missoula County. At Family Promise, 83% of homeless families lived in Missoula County.
People turn to homeless shelters for different reasons, and different nonprofits aim to address different reasons. Some, like the YWCA, focus on helping women and families escaping domestic violence. Others help those struggling with addiction, mental illness or unexpected crisis.
It may surprise some Missoulians to learn that many homeless people have jobs or collect disability benefits or Social Security. In fact, the Poverello reports that 40% of its clients have an income. Missoula’s high housing costs make housing security a challenge for those making minimum wage or supporting a family on one or two part-time jobs.
It’s true that Missoula does draw people in need of health care, job assistance, veterans’ services and other supports from nearby communities that don’t have them. That is a credit to Missoula, and an aspect of our shared values as a community we should all be proud to reinforce.
But we can all agree that a shelter is only one step up from a cold car or a frigid sidewalk. It’s far better to help the homeless before they find themselves with no place else to go. Again, to its credit, Missoula has several major projects in the works to provide housing for homeless families and affordable housing for at-risk households.
Even though Missoula has a lofty goal of ending homelessness, it is likely that there will always be homeless people in need of emergency shelter on the coldest winter nights. Missoula should do all it can to make this number as low as possible. But it should also do all it can to make sure that those in urgent need of a temporary place to warm up have a safe place to go.
The city once had a drop-in center that offered a warm shelter from the cold, as well as referrals for medical help and other services. It originated in 2008 the basement of the First Baptist Church, but its use dropped off sharply after it was moved into the former Poverello building.
When the new Poverello Center opened, it did not include a drop-in shelter. Instead, the Poverello directors emphasized its Homeless Outreach Teams as a more effective way of reaching homeless on the streets.
Clearly, there is still a need for a seasonal, temporary, emergency shelter for those with no other housing options.
As a concerned and caring community, Missoulians should be pressing city leaders for a plan to shelter our most vulnerable homeless neighbors. And we shouldn’t wait until the dead of winter to realize there’s no place for them to go.
The Daily Inter Lake, Oct. 20, on accessible veteran care:
Rural Montana veterans often get the short end of the stick when it comes to reliable, timely access to health care.
Just getting to the VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison, outside Helena, can present a major challenge for patients living in the isolated corners of Montana. From Lincoln County, for example, the drive to Fort Harrison is at least four hours one way — requiring patients to plan for and expense an overnight stay.
Accessing care virtually can also be problematic for rural patients with inadequate internet connectivity at home.
It’s a headache that often keeps veterans from seeking the heath care they need.
But that’s about to change for veterans living in far Northwest Montana.
On Wednesday, the VFW Post 6786 in downtown Eureka held a grand opening for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ first remote teletech exam room, dubbed the VA Atlas (Accessing Telehealth through Local Area Stations).
The exam room inside the Eureka VFW offers a small, private space for virtual appointments with physicians within the VA health network. Inside the “pod,” a patient sits across from a large screen where they can interact with a doctor who is equipped with a remote-controlled camera.
Technology allows the physician to zoom in on the patient, check blood-pressure or glucose, and assess other vitals — just as if they were in the room with the patient.
One VA representative at the Eureka event described the pod as something out of the future.
And he’s not wrong. Many experts believe that health care delivered through virtual “telehealth” methods is the next big thing.
In fact, the Office for the Advancement of Telehealth notes that virtual health care will be especially critical in remote areas that lack sufficient services, including specialty care — a description that covers much of Montana.
With the mission of bringing “VA care closer to home,” Atlas is certainly a worthwhile project. We suspect the Eureka location will mark the first of many to come across the nation if the care delivered meets expectations.
To learn more visit online at https://connectedcare.va.gov/partners/atlas.