Denise Joy – Ward 3
I have been on Council since January 2018. My experiences have been wonderfully influential on my outlook on government and our beautiful city.
Our rewriting of our zoning regulations has been a great opportunity to address a concern of my constituents. Many constituents have expressed frustration that there are no buffers between casinos and neighborhoods. They strongly felt that public safety concerns from casino activities and residential housing being so close together, should be addressed. We can see this situation along Grand, Central and Broadwater Avenues. I attended many hours of Project Recode meetings to observe the process, but also speak up about constituent concerns. Recode was an opportunity to influence the regulations to speak for less “loud” signage. The signage meetings with a large industry presence were conducted in some areas of regulation, word by word. Through a process that will not immediately be apparent, I think we will see less distracting, more modest signage on our main thoroughfares.
I am very proud of my Council work in this area. These were constituents’ concerns that not only impact neighborhoods but will make a better impression on visitors to our city. I am committed to continued work so our city is attractive, inviting and not overwhelming. I can make a difference on important regulations that constituents want done.
My first priority is our public safety issues. In 2018 acting City Administrator McCandlelss addressed the budgetary impact of our underfunded police and fire department. In 2017 additional police officers had been added without sustained funding. I learned quickly we had to address our public safety needs and balance our state mandated Reserve Fund. There were budget cuts made in our public safety departments I did not vote for. I did not support the political calculus of showing the public Council, “was living within its means.” If Council had unfunded public safety needs, I supported asking the public to fund those needs. This was accomplished in 2020. The Repeal and Replace was not a sufficient mill levy “ask” to accomplish elimination of our funding gap.
This policy is ranked as most important not only for funding, but a vision of public safety that addresses safety. The rise in violent crime, homicide and the unpredictability of our personal safety has to be improved. Recommendations from the CPSM study are being implemented. Implementation of these efficiencies are imperative, however, the vision must come from the community. The National Police Survey showed the perceptions of safety downtown. We must improve safety. Council would be remiss to neglect our urban core’s safety. The public safety mill levy will make that possible, without passage of the mill levy, we will be looking at cuts instead of investment.
Secondly, I prioritize access to housing. 5,000 people are on the Section 8 housing list for Yellowstone County. Section 8 is subsidized housing funded through HUD. Billings Community Development Division also provides opportunities for housing in the city. In 2012 policy changes were implemented that uses the First Time Homebuyers Program. This program helps low-income families and individuals access a subsidized mortgage for home ownership. Although it is very successful, it is not to scale to provide housing to the number of people eligible. There are constraints on houses available for renovations, and contractors licensed by HUD to do the work. The restrictions of how HUD funds can be used, limits the capacity of the Community Development Division to make additional housing available. The City of Billings has not optimized its access to state grants on housing due to lack of staff. Previous budget cuts eliminated staff for grant writing. The awards of grants have disproportionately gone to Western Montana. Adding staff would allow for time for grant writing.
The Covid 19 pandemic has upended the predictions about needs. How the eviction moratorium impacts our city, is not known yet. State tax credits that have successfully been awarded to non-profit organizations in the city. However, again it is not at the scale we provided for housing. Federal funding will be absolutely necessary to address our needs. Council has to leverage our federal delegation in order to support federal funding. Local property taxes can not be stretched to meet our housing needs.
Priority number three is creating policy models with an equity lens. When making policies, Council should have collected data to see the equity impacts on our community. A cost and benefit analysis decision making process must have collected data and equity should be an enumerated factor. The Council should be prepared for more sophisticated decision making. This is possible from decision making factors that include equity. How do policies impact different people differently? Data from the utility departments are much easier to address, but land use can have a significant difference. For example, if the decisions on the Inner Belt Loop took into account the need for access to mass transit, how would that impact equity? Do we make decisions that make some developments available only to those who have private cars? Cost of services modeling should include equity. Investment of resources for new development often creates deferred maintenance. Seen through an equity lens, should investment be phased to better address the already built city’s infrastructure? Equity makes Billings more resilient by a data driven decision making process analyzing the impact of everyone. Having built-in subsidies without data driven understanding of who is paying and who is subsidized, creates distrust and grievances of inequity.
We need a detailed and extensive vision for Downtown and our TIF Districts. We have excellent opportunities in each of these areas for redevelopment and reinvestment that can set in place further economic development. One obstacle, I see, is a belief that demolition is a quicker less expensive method to redevelopment. We could lose our feeling of authentic Billings by tearing down our old buildings. We have historic roads that run through the heart of Downtown. The Yellowstone Trail that later became Highway 10, brought travelers from all over the east through Billings’ economic hub. Placemaking should be the foundation to build our vision. Our Unified City/County planning is a capacity to be proactive. When funding is not available, plans are not implemented or scaled back. Then when funding becomes available, projects are often behind in scale for the present situation. Or the city has changed through ad hoc decisions that make the planning less than optimal. A commitment from City leadership to follow those plans would be helpful. Greater understanding of the importance of planning among Council is absolutely necessary.
Yes, I support the 2021 Public Safety Mill Levy. The goal of the increased investment in Police is to lower incidents of violent crime. Chief St. John is confident that additional resources will allow the Street Crimes Unit to disrupt crimes that lead to high levels of violence. Resources will hold accountable partner/spouse abuse that traumatized victims and children. Those traumatized victims can become the next generation of abusers through learned behavior. Accountability is a part of both prevention and deterrence. Investment in prevention has a far better return than reacting to crimes.
The fire department investments will add years of use to the equipment. The savings will be in sending a lighter vehicle on 911 calls that only need a Rapid Response Team. The Rapid Response Teams will sustain national standard response times for an effective fire department.
Council’s commitment is the MOST important support for Value Capture mechanisms, TIF, and other development tools. Without Council’s understanding and knowledge of these mechanisms, we will fail to create opportunities for our workforce. We will fail to encourage the skills and education for our workforce. Additionally, there will be underutilized skills within our workforce. The election of hard working, knowledgeable Council Members is important to that support.
We lose our vibrance and lack competitiveness in attracting the “future” economy. Our long-standing reliance on the competitive advantage of not having a sales tax, will not last forever. As the state of Montana has cut funding for decades, they have pushed the funding of basic services onto municipalities. Municipalities have very few avenues for funding. There is and will be continued property taxpayer fatigue. Property tax is the most unpopular tax, and the city has few choices. We can not have a 21st century economy run a 19th century tax structure. ARPA and CARES money will only mask the arcane and distorted funding for Montana’s municipal governments. These deficiencies must be addressed by the legislature. Council must build and leverage relationships with our legislators. In my experience of writing and calling legislators during the session, only some respond. Getting to know legislators before the session is productive.
Yes, I support a local option authority. The Yellowstone Trail Association was founded in 1912. They envisioned a road from Plymouth Rock to Puget Sound. That was nearly 110 years ago and people recognized the value of tourism to local economies. If people understood that 110 years ago, why have we not addressed the value of tourism and availed ourselves of the economic reward? The answer is political and economic, and the solution is political and economic. The revenues from a local option tax should be broad enough to address infrastructure, but not so narrow to exclude intangible benefits. If assessment could be cut and replaced with this local option authority that would be optimal. The authority would have to be substantial enough to make progress, not simply a status quo funding. Without addressing deferred maintenance, local option would have limited impact. Deferred maintenance will always cost more than on time maintenance. If an arterial maintenance is deferred for 10 years, the costs only increase through material prices, labor costs and contractor costs. Many political decisions have been made giving minimal tax cuts and creating long term maintenance problems.
The Park District reauthorization may be an obstacle to funding the parks and programming. We should have a mill levy dedicated to parks. We use this with the Library and other services. Once the mill levy is authorized by the voters, it does not need further approval. If parks were funded through a mill levy, we would need to amend the City Charter to include a Parks mill levy. Our City Charter will be up for a vote of approval within a few years. This will be our opportunity to work with the Land Trust to pass a dedicated mill levy. I supported Council ‘s initiating a relationship with the Land Trust. Our parks should be a highly valued asset for our city. We can overcome these obstacles with leadership and political will.
Housing has become a very hot topic as a consequence of the Covid 19 pandemic. Council could support incentivizing Infill for the city. There are many acres within the built city that can be used for housing. Infilling within the already existing city is cost effective and desirable. These areas are the most walkable, which is identified as an amenity for younger working people. During the writing of our new zoning regulation, the urban working committee discussed the ideas of incentives for Infill. They did not move forward with this idea. But our situation is quite different from 2019.
The number of applications for residential building is very high and remodeling of existing homes is very popular. If construction materials drop in price and there is timely supply, this may solve some problems.
Council sits in the driver’s seat on approval of new housing. When Council relents to pressure from neighborhoods that do not want new development, we will hamstring housing supply. I have consistently voted for Infill and new housing developments. Despite the angry e-mails, I understand the city must rely on private investment for housing. I have unfortunately been told by a developer that he considered the Council “unfriendly” to development. That is a very distressing comment. An attitude of only representing those most like ourselves, leads to poor decisions. Council must balance the needs of all the people of our community.