Bill Cole – Mayor
It is a privilege to be able to serve others. Over the last 20-plus years I’ve worked with many local organizations and individuals who have made a real difference in our community. As mayor, I have teamed with city employees, volunteers, community organizations and others to advance dozens of projects that are making Billings a safer and more economically vibrant, welcoming, and fun place to work and live. It would be an honor, and personally very rewarding, to continue for another four years.
First, public safety. The crime rate in Billings has more than doubled over the last 10 years, owing in large measure to a flood of meth coming from Mexico. Response times for our fire department exceed national norms. We need more personnel and physical space for our police department, fire department, prosecutors, municipal court, code enforcement officers, and jail. We also need to devote more resources to addressing the root causes of crime through prevention and treatment of substance abuse and mental health disorders. If we invest the effort and resources, I believe we will see our crime rate plateau and then start to decline to lower historical levels.
Second, without diminishing core government services like crime prevention, water, sewer and streets, we also need to keep our eye on community amenities that improve the quality of life for all Billings residents and promote economic growth. The competition for labor is intense everywhere in the United States, and Billings is no exception. Billings must stand out from the crowd of competitor cities in order to attract and retain the people — young and old — who can fill those unfilled jobs, fuel economic growth, and expand our tax base. We have made great strides in recent years in this area, but we need to continue to invest in our downtown, airport, parks, trails, cultural institutions, and other assets that make Billings a great place to live.
Third, to achieve these and other priorities, local government’s decision-making process must function reasonably smoothly and with a minimum of friction and personal conflict. I have tried hard to model and promote respectful, professional relationships with city residents, council members, staff, community volunteers, businesses, and local organizations, and I think Billings has enjoyed a good track record on this score in recent years. We have also worked to tweak various city ordinances and policies in order to make local government be more efficient, transparent and predictable. We will continue to do this over the next four years, especially as we begin the challenging task of identifying amendments that need to be made to the city’s charter.
In the last couple months Billings has received national publicity for its strong residential real estate market, opportunity for future growth, high quality of life, and other factors that will fuel future growth. We will be able to handle this growth better if, in addition to addressing the public safety issues mentioned above, we also: (1) Complete a cost-of-services study that compares the cost of new growth and impacts on city infrastructure against the benefits received from additional taxes, etc. (2) Carefully monitor the impact of Project Re-Code (the city’s new zoning code) on new development and make modifications when necessary. (3) Investigate creating impact fees to fund the expansion of the stormwater system necessitated by new construction. (4) Limit or cease future expansion of the Billings Urban Fire Service Area (BUFSA). (5) Complete construction of a new Westend water intake, reservoir, and water treatment plant to provide storage capacity and redundancy in the water treatment system. (6) Finish the Billings Bypass Corridor Study to guide land use planning for the area between Lockwood and Billings Heights. (7) Construct the Inner Belt Loop and enter into cost-sharing agreements with area developers to facilitate the long-term installation of water and wastewater utilities along the IBL corridor. (8) Build the Skyline Trail between the airport and Zimmerman Trail and complete other segments of the Marathon Loop Trail as properties are annexed into the city. (9) Consider proposing a mill levy and/or bond issue to fund construction and maintenance of new large parks and trail infrastructure, including Colson Park, Castle Rock Park, Cottonwood Park, and the Stagecoach Trail.
Yes. But the reality is that success will be hard to measure. Ideally, our crime rate and fire department response times will decline; businesses that are hampered by crime will thrive; more criminal cases will be resolved sooner in municipal court; there will be fewer transients on the streets and more people with substance abuse and mental disorders receiving treatment; the number of dilapidated buildings that harbor drug dealing and transiency will decline; improved morale of first responders and other public safety personnel will make it easier to attract and retain top talent; and the public perception of the safety of our community will increase.
Promoting downtown residential development, improved convention facilities, and economic development in the area between the medical corridor and downtown remain important goals. The recent acquisition of several downtown properties by developers who are planning or have already completed residential development projects is particularly encouraging. However, it is difficult for the city to prioritize initiatives like these without a funding source. The One Big Sky development plan assumed passage of SB 340, the 406 Impact Districts bill; but the 2019 legislature failed to pass that bill by a narrow majority. The existing TIF mechanism is helpful in promoting incremental redevelopment, but it lacks the economic horsepower to effect expeditious, transformational change. Other tools are needed. The idea behind the 406 Impact Districts bill, which essentially would have funded public infrastructure projects built by private developers using new state and local tax revenue generated by large adjacent private projects built in conjunction with the public infrastructure, remains a valid concept. But to succeed it will require broad statewide support, one or more large projects promoted by credible developers, and legislative leadership with the gravitas necessary to get a similar bill across the goal line.
I am a fervent supporter of letting Billings residents vote on whether they want a local option sales tax on luxury goods. Every year hundreds of thousands of non-residents use our streets, police, emergency personnel, utilities, parks, and other city services, but they pay nothing for those services. Admittedly, those non-residents do support our local businesses that in turn pay local property taxes, but Billings residents do the same thing and still pay taxes to boot. To make things worse, many Billings residents pay sales tax to other jurisdictions when they visit Montana resort communities or the 45 other states that have a sales tax. Admittedly, many state legislators and voters of both parties are opposed to a local option tax. Therefore property tax relief must be an element of any local option tax proposal, even though past experience also proves that property tax relief by itself will not be sufficient to assure passage. Additional incentives must be found to entice rural legislators to support any such proposal. It will also be interesting to see whether this November voters around the state approve local option taxes on marijuana and, if they do, whether at some point that will make them more amendable to other local tax proposals.
The loss of existing Park District 1 funding will be catastrophic for our parks if the funding is not replaced by another source. In the near future the city council will need to decide whether to ask voters to reauthorize Park District 1 or approve a mill levy that would provide funds for park maintenance and construction of new parks. It is also possible that voters might approve both a mill levy and a reauthorized PD1, but probably only if significant sideboards were placed on the city council’s ability to unilaterally levy park district assessments. For example, one idea that I have consistently promoted is that the city council could be given the ability to increase the park district assessment for new park construction, but only if the assessment were used to match private donations made to fund new park construction. Ultimately the voters will decide many of these issues, but it will be up the city council to frame the choices given to the voters and to actively promote the best solutions.
There are no easy answers to this question because ultimately private developers influenced by market forces, and not city government, will decide how to address the housing shortage. But city government can still play an important role by: making it easier to complete in-fill development (Project Recode has already significantly increased building permits for expansion of pre-1960 buildings by liberalizing lot-coverage rules, reducing setbacks, clarifying regulations for accessory dwelling units, legalizing short-term rentals, etc.); encouraging a mix of multi-family and single-family development that increases residential densities; approving annexations and extensions of city services that include appropriate infrastructure and city-like residential densities; and processing all land use and building permit applications as quickly, competently, and fairly as possible. City government should also continue to assist local developers who seek state tax credits for construction of low-income housing. Lastly, and as I understand it, substantial Section 8 funding is available to subsidize rental payments to private landlords, but too few landlords are willing to participate in the program. Perhaps the city could team with HomeFront (formerly Billings Housing Authority) to help educate landlords about their options and encourage participation in the program.