Jennifer Owen – Ward 2
I am running for City Council because I believe we are at a pivotal moment for the Heights, as well as for the City of Billings overall. We have major challenges ahead of us that will determine what kind of community we want to be, including public safety, affordable housing, and economic development. Council needs to lead, and I am ready to take on that task.
For the past two years, I have served as chair of the Billings Heights Neighborhood Task Force, where we have worked diligently to advance important priorities, including the Inner Belt Loop, the Billings Bypass, and the long overdue development of Castle Rock Park. We have made progress on these critical projects by working collaboratively and focusing on clear goals. I am ready to bring that same energy, vision, and leadership to City Council.
If elected, I intend to focus on promoting safe neighborhoods, completing critical infrastructure around the community, and ensuring a transparent, accountable City Council.
Clearly, residents of Billings are concerned about public safety. We deserve neighborhoods where our kids can play, and our homes and businesses aren’t at risk. For years, Council has debated funding more police, fire, and related services – all important items. Yet, there has been virtually no discussion of goals or outcomes. Council has failed to establish any measurable targets for our crime reduction efforts and, as such, we lack a community-wide strategy to improve public safety. I believe that needs to change and, if elected, will work with other Council members to identify clear goals to guide our public safety discussion.
Second, I believe Council needs to focus on completing critical infrastructure projects that are underway, including the West End water treatment plant, the airport expansion, the Inner Belt Loop, and the Billings Bypass. Together, these projects will support robust economic growth and form the foundation of a thriving community. Going forward, Council should continue to prioritize those infrastructure projects that have a clear link to improving safety and encouraging private sector growth.
Finally, I believe that Council can do more to ensure our local government is transparent and accountable to the voters. Council meetings that regularly last until late at night deter public engagement and reduce citizen involvement. We need more effective meeting management and much stronger efforts to reach out to the public and seek input on priority decisions. We need to take a serious look at the budget process and ensure that the annual budget debate is accessible and understandable to all voters. Finally, we need Council to focus on streamlining its processes and encouraging private investments in our community.
Planning for growth is essential. Council needs to consider investments that will be necessary based on different growth scenarios and be honest with the public about those needs – roads, water, sewer, and safety. Collaboration with other governmental entities will be vital and is, in my opinion, something that Council has not focused on enough. Supporting sustained growth means working with the County Commission on zoning, annexation, infrastructure, and similar areas of shared interest. Council must partner with the school district to develop facility plans and ensure that growth doesn’t again risk accreditation. Partnerships with local legislators will also be necessary to ensure that Helena doesn’t impede our ability to act in the best interest of our community.
Planning for growth also depends on using reliable data to make evidence-based decisions. We need Council Members who are willing to dig deep and ask tough questions to ensure that tax dollars are being spent in a way that delivers real value to the taxpayer. We can’t continue doing things the way they have always been done. The City of Billings deserves to be the best and our local government must commit itself to best practices and robust data to support its decisions.
Finally, the most important thing that Council can do to plan for growth is to make sure that it isn’t standing in the way. We need to ensure that codes and regulations aren’t burdensome or outdated. Council must continually assess and adapt the new Project Recode to ensure that zoning isn’t a barrier to development. We need steady policy direction from Council that sets a clear vision for Billings, rather than inconsistent and incoherent decision-making that stifles private investment. With good planning and strong leadership, we can encourage growth that enhances our overall quality of life.
The Public Safety Mill Levy (PSML) would make some important improvements, but I also have serious concerns. I support investments in our police and fire, and the needs in the justice sector – particularly for domestic violence prosecution – are well documented and necessary. I am pleased to see that the City worked to get independent assessments of fire and police operations, ensuring that the requests for those departments were tailored to specific needs and based on maximizing efficiency.
However, there are also real shortcomings in the PSML. First, the proposal continues to seek funding for “structural deficits” – an issue that was supposedly addressed in the 2020 mill levy. The PSML would direct $400,000 to substance abuse and mental health, yet there has been no plan for these dollars nor has anyone articulated what might be accomplished by the City spending tax dollars in this area. Earlier versions of the PSML included homelessness as part of that $400,000, which has now been omitted – even though the challenges faced by downtown business owners due to homelessness and vagrancy are real. The County has a $1 million levy for mental health. Rather than focus on an unmet need such as homelessness, the current PSML appears to simply duplicate the funding that the County already has in place.
Most troubling, the PSML has omitted construction of Fire Station 8 in the Heights, a long-standing need. Station 8 is not just about the City’s consistent underfunding of essential priorities in the Heights. Every neighborhood suffers when there are gaps in the fire safety system. If an event in the Heights requires two engines, then resources are being pulled from downtown or North Park. The entire system is strained, and everyone feels the impact. I will continue to advocate for a more comprehensive public safety strategy.
Downtown redevelopment needs to be based on a locally driven vision that responds to actual needs and desires of residents. The City of Billings could do much to encourage private investment in downtown by focusing on its essential governmental role – reducing crime and vagrancy, managing traffic flows, updating public infrastructure, and ensuring that codes, regulations, and procedures are modern, clear, and not anti-business. Any use of public-private partnerships should be rigorously vetted and clearly aligned to measurable public policy goals so that there is a quantifiable return on investment to the taxpayer.
At its core, a local option tax is a workaround for the existing tax structure, which places a heavy burden on property tax for local governmental operations. Rather than trying to circumvent the structure or simply raise taxes, I would support a more collaborative approach. I would partner with our local legislators to advocate for meaningful tax reform in Montana, finding ways to more effectively allocate tax burdens without continuing to raise taxes on property owners. Given the size of the tourism industry in Montana, I share the concerns that visitors to our state, and to the city of Billings, pay nothing for the impact on roads, water and sewer, or public safety. But I do not support simply raising taxes without offsetting some of the more anti-growth tax burdens, such as property tax. We need to fix the broken system, not patch it with new taxes.
I believe parks should be funded in the general fund. Budgets are about our values and our priorities – walling off dollars into special buckets allows Council to avoid making tough decisions and increases the likelihood of continued mill levies. Every year, Council should be evaluating the general fund budget and ensuring that expenditures align with community needs. In some years, Parks will have the highest needs and should receive the highest funding. In other years, public safety or city facilities may be a higher priority. These decisions are the very purpose of a budget – they force us to decide where to spend limited dollars. By creating special funds and treating them as untouchable, we risk underfunding emerging needs and increase the likelihood of ongoing tax increases.
There are steps Council can take to improve our Parks system. Council needs a much better understanding of operations and maintenance costs before new parks are developed. Council can do more to oversee and direct the use of cash-in-lieu dollars – the money that developers must pay to the City if they choose not to include a park in a new residential development. When new park development is considered, Council should do more to support investments that have some revenue potential – facilities for fee-based recreational programming, shelter rentals, and even concessions. While these revenues are certainly not going to fund the Parks Department, every option should be explored to ensure the wisest use of resources. Council should again revisit the disposition of land that isn’t likely to be developed into a park and should avoid new land acquisition unless there is a clear plan and funding strategy for development. Before we seek to simply increase taxes for park development, Council must ensure that existing dollars are being wisely spent.
Truthfully, Council can’t solve every problem and the current housing shortage is likely an area where Council would do best to stay out of the way of private development. As mentioned above, Council can and should do more to evaluate existing codes, regulations, zoning, and procedures to ensure that City operations are not a barrier to new development. The City receives federal community development dollars and should be evaluating carefully whether those funds are being directed to high impact activities that encourage affordable housing.
Overall, the current housing shortage in Billings is being shaped by national and, in some cases, global trends. Shortages in raw materials are driving up the cost of construction, worker migration is bringing more people to Billings, and workforce shortages are constraining growth in many industries. While Council can’t necessarily directly impact those trends, it can do much more as a body to advocate at the right levels for action. Montana has abundant natural resources – we need to reinvigorate responsible, sustainable timber production throughout our state, along with other vital raw materials that can contribute to reducing the cost of materials for housing development. Council should be engaging with local legislators and state officials to ensure that our statewide policies are encouraging people to work, rather than stay home, so that we have the labor force to respond to housing demand. Where we have clear demand for a product – as we do in housing right now – governments should avoid unnecessary intervention and instead ensure that existing policies and regulations are not artificially inhibiting the market.