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The stories sound like a homeowner’s nightmare – couches and beer cans on the lawn, college parties that run deep into the night and games of street hockey at 3 a.m.

The University of Montana is expanding its Neighborhood Ambassador Program this year in an effort to mitigate such problems and to build a better relationship between University District homeowners and the college students who rent there.

The program this semester has added two additional members to serve as neighborhood ambassadors and will expand its patrol to encompass a greater portion of the University District.

“A lot of the big complaints we get from homeowners are trash, trash on the lawns, unkempt lawns and indoor furniture outside the home,” said Katherine Brady, director of the Off-Campus Renter Center at UM. “Parking issues are huge, and noise is a big one.”

After last year’s successful launch, the Neighborhood Ambassador Program is looking to grow. The expanded district will now extend from Fifth Street on the north and North Avenue on the south, with a western boundary of Ronald Avenue.

Brady said the program receives 100 percent of its funding from ASUM, or about $7,000 a year. She said the program would like to expand to include 15 ambassadors to cover all of the University District, along with portions of the lower Rattlesnake Valley.

To make that happen, Brady said, the program is reapplying for a neighborhood grant and will look for support from the city. She said the program needs a few thousand dollars to expand the ambassador effort to its full potential.

“Pending funding, ASUM intends to expand the program to encompass the entire University District come spring semester,” Brady said. “I’m confident that with the support of the community, we’ll be able to secure enough funding for our proposed expansion.”

Missoula Mayor John Engen addressed the ASUM Senate not long ago, advocating for the Neighborhood Ambassador Program. He would like to see the effort grow and believes a partnership with the city may be within reach.

“I think it’s a great idea, and I think they’re getting results on the ground,” said Engen. “I think this is part of a partnership approach we need to take in these neighborhood quality-of-life issues, and I think it’s reasonable for us to participate.”

Students who are chosen to serve as neighborhood ambassadors earn roughly $8.50 an hour. Brady said the program needs the funding to hire strong candidates, and paying them gives them incentive to take the work seriously.

The students work together in distributing newsletters, planning neighborhood events and creating a communication bridge for residents. Ambassadors also run educational campaigns to advise student renters on their rights and responsibilities as tenants.

“Having a student representative versus law enforcement on the first initial contact makes for a smoother process,” said Sgt. Dustin Delridge, the quality-of-life officer with the Missoula Police Department. “It’s another way of working out communication programs that we haven’t had before and we should have had 10 years ago.”

Delridge, who often is called when disputes flare up between homeowners and student renters, said complaints represent around 25 percent of his workload. Having advocates working to resolve the issue before the police get involved is a sensible approach, he said.

“It’s crucial that the university and non-university community work together,” Delridge said. “The ambassadors see things before we do and hopefully before a complaint comes in. There are things the police department hasn’t heard about because the advocates have already addressed it.”

If the program were to expand beyond the University District in the future, Delridge said, the area west of Higgins Avenue should be considered. He said complaints from that area, west of Higgins to Bancroft Street, has become more problematic than the lower Rattlesnake.

“I meet with the landlords if it’s a continued problem,” Delridge said. “If they’re not taking any steps to resolve the problem, they could be cited for running a nuisance household. But all I’ve dealt with have been progressive and have taken the problem seriously.”

Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260 or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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