Ed Gulick – Ward 1
I have great passion and a genuine love for Billings, and I want my community to be a loving, fun, vibrant, prosperous place to live—the kind of place our friends, children, and grandchildren are just itching to be a part of. I love Billings because of our amazing Rimrocks and river; I love the general attitude of people in Billings too: we are friendly and authentic, not conceited or pretentious, looking down on others. We’re hardworking, and given good leadership, we’re a can-do people.
We have incredible potential, and I have sensed for a long time that the great citizens, businesses, and institutions of our community have been longing to reach out and grab that potential. But we need leadership that understands the strategic challenges and opportunities our community faces.
For a long time I’ve had the vague notion that I could bring the needed leadership because of my skills and knowledge as an architect. Architects are problem-solvers: through an iterative process, we get input from a variety of stakeholders, analyze complex conditions with many variables, develop multiple options, and select the option that accomplishes the most within the budget. We also know the consequences that design has on the function and desirability of places—we are placemakers. As a small business owner, I am also acutely aware of the challenges that Billings businesses and institutions have in attracting a talented workforce.
I decided that I was ready and eager to run for office because we have successfully trained the next generation of talent in our office, and I really want to see Billings thrive!
- Thriving Downtown – downtown is not only the cultural heart of the city but also the economic engine that attracts the workforce of the future and generates a tax revenue surplus that benefits the whole community. However, downtown has been the golden goose on a starvation diet for decades. To get the substantial private sector investment and tax revenue surpluses that fund public safety, parks, and trails, we need to make strategic downtown infrastructure investments. For example, we need to convert our downtown streets from one-way to two-way traffic with bike lanes to attract vibrant mixed-use development.
- Safe Neighborhoods – the costs of crime are greater than the cost of funding good police and fire protection, and I support the public safety levy to address immediate challenges. However, the long-term solution for public safety funding is downtown revitalization. We also need to design our community so it more crime-resistant. For example, we need more traffic calming in our neighborhoods to reduce speeding so children can safely walk and bike to school. And more walkable districts increase the number of “eyes on the street.”
- Excellent Parks and Trails – a city that works hard deserves places to recreate that connect us to our city’s greatest assets, the Rims and the River. Also essential for attracting workforce. But our wonderful trail system has languished in a partially-completed state for the past 10 years because federal support for active transportation has plummeted. We also have parks in strategic locations like Coulson Park, but we haven’t had the resources to develop them into their incredible potential. Coulson Park could be an extraordinary recreational hub where our city’s trail system meets the river for water sports. We can get there with a more robust tax base and the right leadership.
- Growth is going to happen to Billings, and it can be either very beneficial, or it can sap our strength and dig our tax base into a deeper hole.
- If we grow outward in a low-density, automobile-dependent manner, our cost of services will increase faster than our tax revenue, and we will increasingly be dependent on going back to voters to approve property tax increases for public safety and other necessary services. And we will not be able to afford improvements to our parks and trail systems.
- If, however, much of our growth occurs as infill, mixed-use, higher density development served by a mix of transportation modes, we will expand our tax base at a faster rate than our cost of services. The mix of modes would include walking, biking, and buses with a higher level of service in addition to private vehicles. The 2-5 story mixed-use development would supplant underutilized single story buildings and parking lots in downtown and along our existing arterials, such as Main St., Grand Ave., Broadwater, Central, and 24th W. Because this kind of development generates a surplus of tax revenue, our community could afford to increase our public safety services and move parks and trails projects forward.
- But while there is a rapidly growing market for mixed-use development, it will occur in a haphazard, uncoordinated, and less successful manner if it is not planned. Project Re:Code created an excellent foundation for making these improvements to our community. But a masterplan for each of the aging arterial corridors needs to be done to help visualize the opportunity, evaluate the capacity of infrastructure systems, and plan for changes in services. For instance, bus transit and mixed-use buildings must co-develop together.
Yes, I will vote for this levy, and I enthusiastically support it to everyone I talk to. I’m very pleased with how the money will be allocated, with about 10% of the money going toward addiction and mental health services to try and reduce some of the root causes of the issues our community faces. Issues that often do not require a commissioned law officer.
It also puts money where it is most needed, including the drastically overloaded legal and municipal court system. When the wheels of justice are bogged down, officers on the street are not supported.
Desired outcomes would include:
- 25%-50% reduction in reported crimes, as tracked with current crime statistics
- Reduction in traffic violations that are not currently reported since we don’t have the resources for enforcement. So this would largely be anecdotal observations of far fewer red light runners and speeding through neighborhoods as well as on arterials and collectors.
- Survey results in 2-3 years (with the same questions as 2020-2021 survey) that indicated that public perceptions of safety in Billings have improved markedly.
- Far fewer instances of repeat violators, such as the 93 identified individuals responsible for approximately $10MM annually in public safety resources. We’ve figured out some alternative ways to deal with these challenges—which sometimes don’t involve illegal activity—that do not require commissioned officers, and these methods are not as expensive.
I believe strengthening our downtown is key to a bright future for Billings; a vital downtown provides quality of life amenities for existing residents, attracts the workforce we need as the Baby Boomer generation continues to retire, and generates more in property tax revenue than it uses in services.
Downtown-quality construction projects are substantial investments; unlike more disposable types of construction such as big box retail and most multi-family housing at the perimeter of our community, these buildings are very durable and have a service life of 50 to 100 or more years. Commercial lending typically does not provide more than about 50% of total upfront project costs, so private investment and economic development instruments like TIF grants are required to fill the financing gap.
My architecture firm has worked on many projects that gave second life to downtown buildings for retail and office uses and housing. Bridging the financing gap for the gut rehab of these historic buildings required local investors, TIF grants—which brought in more than $6 of private investment for every $1 of TIF funding—and historic tax credits. But new construction does not have access to the historic tax credits, so they are more dependent on the private investment.
The Value Capture mechanism reduces the risk to private investors by requiring that public investments in “vertical infrastructure” occur once sufficient private investment thresholds have been met. These vertical infrastructure projects included a convention center and a public market—public investments that made the enduring desirability of the private development much more certain. The public investments would be paid with the additional tax base generated by the new private investment.
I support state legislation that allows the Value Capture economic development mechanism in Montana; it would be a very helpful tool for large private investment in downtown and other new walkable districts in Billings.
I believe the city would benefit from more diversified and equitable tax sources, and I support legislation that allows city residents to vote on whether they want a local option sales tax. The argument for residents to adopt a local sales tax is that the additional tax burden to residents would be offset by a reduction in property taxes. And this change in tax sources is justified because visitors to Billings would also be paying the sales tax. Currently Billings property owners alone shoulder the cost of the infrastructure and public services that visitors also benefit from; a sales tax would more equitably align who bears the costs and benefits.
My support of local sales tax would be contingent on two points:
- We do the math. Before our community commits to new infrastructure investments, we need to ensure that taxes from new development would pay for not only the upfront costs but also the ongoing maintenance of the associated infrastructure and public services. This will require a shift for us, as our investments in infrastructure and services for low-density development likely do not meet this test. So we are digging ourselves into a deeper hole. This is the equivalent of a corporation investing in a division that continuously loses money rather than a division that is profitable with a strong, developing market. We need to look out for taxpayer interests and be fiscally responsible.
- Equitable sales tax. A sales tax should not be required for essential products and services. We cannot increase the tax burden to low income residents, who would not benefit from property tax relief. This is important not only for moral reasons but also because additional burdens on our low-income residents tend to increase the requirements for public funds to address the additional challenges they create.
I believe parks and trails are essential for the quality of life of residents and essential for attracting talent—they connect us to this place and its people. Finding a funding solution that meets the needs and expectations of Billings residents is a top priority for me. I am interested in the feedback of others to find the most politically-attractive solution, but I think going to the voters—contingent upon the public safety mill levy this fall—next year with both a mill levy and bond levy makes sense.
I propose that the mill levy language takes all parks funding out of the general fund (reducing general fund by the mill equivalent of approximately $3.5MM) and raises something like $8-10MM per year in a levy dedicated for parks maintenance and small park projects. I would also advocate a bond levy that would fund something like $50MM for major parks and trails projects, including Castlerock Park, Coulson Park, and Centennial Park as well as a good chunk of the remaining Marathon Loop Trail. Certainly the allocation can be reprioritized if the local funds are used for a successful grant match from private, foundation, or federal sources. But the bond levy language would stipulate that the bond would be null and void if the mill levy was not also passed; we absolutely cannot have projects built if we have no means of maintaining them.
In order to sell the two levies to the public, it is absolutely critical that the specific projects to be funded are listed along with a schedule for their completion. We need transparency and accountability, as general funding of parks motivates neither voters nor me. The specific parks and trails projects would geographically diverse so that all residents are near at least one of the projects.
While the City does not have a direct role in the creation of housing—housing is constructed by for for-profit and non-profit developers, it can nonetheless play a leadership role in addressing the housing shortage. Community Development, for instance, could co-convene a housing summit in which all of the major housing stakeholders are represented:
- For-profit developers
- Non-profit developers
- Homefront (formerly Housing Authority)
- TIF district administrators and boards
- Advocates for those without housing
- The Chamber and Big Sky Economic Development
The summit goal would be to identify the barriers and opportunities for housing for each of the stakeholders. And then solutions can be proposed. Are there zoning, tax, or TIF district policies that should be adjusted or created to remove barriers?
The discussion is invariably about affordability—it is not just whether sufficient housing can be constructed but whether housing is accessible to a range of incomes. And so the frame should be broadened to consider affordable living, not just affordable housing. Housing in distant locations that requires every adult to have a vehicle to get to school or work reduces affordability; a household that can reduce the number of vehicles by one because it is within walking distance of a school, workplace, shops, and/or a high level of bus service is inherently more affordable.
So affordable living questions come back to how we develop as a community. I would like to play a leadership role on council in ensuring our city government provides the vision and policies that equip the housing industry to build a range of attractive housing types, from single family residences to apartments and condos in high density, mixed-use developments. This range of housing would help us keep our taxes lower and provide affordable living for a range of incomes.