Tom Rupsis – Ward 5
Over the past 8 years, as a member and now Chair of the Parks Board, I have been inspired by the efforts of people working every day to make Billings a better community. I have seen how their energy and passion is often stymied by a Council that can’t deal with more than one serious topic at a time because they are busy micromanaging City staff. I’ve seen how the lack of a community-wide vision for Billings has led to inconsistent policy-making, harming both our business and non-profit sectors. I’ve heard from nearly everyone on Council that partisan differences are making it harder to get anything done.
We don’t need a more conservative or liberal Council. We need a Council full of citizens that can learn from the people in the trenches and then work together to make Billings better. We need a Council that understands their role is that of policy-maker, not as staff supervisor. We need a Council that provides clarity to our City Administrator and actively develops our citizen advisory boards, improving Council productivity through effective delegation. We need a Council that sets a clear vision for the future of Billings, and then supports and empowers everyone from the City Administrator to our businesses, non-profits, and citizens to set goals and work towards that vision.
Humility and clarity in leadership are ideas that every successful business leader knows. I’m running for City Council because our ability to succeed through this next growth phase while holding true to what makes Billings great depends on incorporating these concepts into our elected body.
My three focus areas, in no particular order, are (1) improving public safety, (2) developing our parks, trails, and public spaces, and (3) supporting economic development.
On public safety, the CPSM recommendations provide the opportunity to significantly increase our effective resources. Combined with the passage of this year’s public safety mill levy, we should be able to re-engage our police officers with community organizations and businesses throughout the city to deal with the specific crime issues faced in each neighborhood. Improving data collection, analysis, and strategic engagement will be key to turning the corner on our rising crime rate.
Given my history on the Parks Board, I am obviously interested in parks and trails. To me, these and our other public spaces are key to our ability to create community in Billings. I’d like to continue my work on the Parks Board by advancing a 2022 ballot initiative to secure parks and trails funding for both operations and maintenance as well as the development of our long backlog of deferred development projects.
Finally, I believe the Billings economy is too heavily weighted towards lower-income, service-sector jobs. We need to be creating more middle-income jobs that allow families to thrive and attract more skilled labor to Billings. It’s not Council’s role to create jobs, but we can certainly emphasize policies that encourage that type of development.
The impact of advancing these policies? A safer, more prosperous, more connected Billings.
Our growth rate since the last census was a steady 1.2%. We’re looking at faster growth this year for sure, but it’s a bit late to be proactive about planning for growth we are already experiencing. I think there are three areas where we could be working right now to better improve our chances that we get the kind of growth that we want over the next 10 years.
First, we desperately need to define and adopt a community wide vision for Billings. The vision statement adopted for the Council’s 2015-2019 strategic plan (“A diverse, welcoming community where people prosper and business succeeds.”) is hardly motivating or even aspirational. Until this vision is defined, and our efforts are aligned to support that vision, any growth will be no better than undirected change.
Secondly, we need to work on improving the relationship with the County Commissioners and our State legislative delegation. Oftentimes we give the impression of not being on the same team. Since so many planning and growth issues cross jurisdictional boundaries, we need to make sure we are all aligned and working together.
Finally, there are a number of guiding documents that need to be updated. Following the update of our growth policy in 2016, we updated our zoning code. This was a much-needed update, which should prove useful once the initial issues are worked out. But it is already time to be reviewing our growth policy, and we should be updating our neighborhood plans, most of which are 15-20 years old or more.
I support the mill levy. I have been actively educating people on the levy, the City’s plans for the funds, and the intended effects of the levy. And I’ve been encouraging everyone I speak with to support the levy.
Even as I support the levy, I have concerns about continuing to pass levies of fixed mills. Over the long run, our costs outpace property value increases by several percent, so every fixed mill levy ends up creating future deficits. I will work to influence future levy proposals in ways that improve the long-term financial stability of our city.
In terms of outcomes, vehicle thefts and aggravated assaults (primarily PFMA) are driving our crime rate increase. We need to increase the efforts of the Street Crimes Unit that has proven effective at reducing vehicle thefts, and I would like to see some funds planned for programs that have proven effective at reducing domestic violence.
The number one citywide metric I’ll be watching is the percent of officer time that is spent responding to cases. The CPSM report showed that our officers are spending too much time running from case to case and not enough time doing proactive policing and relationship building in our neighborhoods. The closest CPSM came to providing a recommendation on crime reduction was to improve this metric. Since you can’t improve what you don’t measure, I think that it is critical that BPD collects the data necessary to regularly report this specific metric to the public. And by regularly, I mean weekly.
Finally, one of Chief St John’s stated focus areas for the levy is traffic enforcement. Speaking specifically as a Ward 5 resident, I’d like to see metrics on both average speeds and decibel levels on the major streets in the West End.
The One Big Sky development plan was exciting, ambitious, and visionary. I do believe it would have been a big win for Billings and for Yellowstone County. But OBSD was always going to be dependent on state-level support for its innovative financing mechanism. The 406 Impacts Bill failed in 2019, and I don’t recall hearing any news at all from the 2021 Legislature about another attempt to get something similar passed. Like the local option authority, generating state-level support for Billings-led initiatives just has not been an area of great success in recent years.
One of City Council’s priorities should definitely be to attract private investment to Billings. Large, go-big-or-go-home projects like OBSD are one way to do that. However, those opportunities are rare, complicated, and have a very low rate of success. We should pursue those projects, but only as part of a broader strategy of economic development that supports a community-wide vision of who we are and what we want to be.
In terms of attracting private investment using existing tools, Council could expand existing TIF districts, create new districts, and clarify and adjust TIF policies. We could create favorable terms for investments that create new, well-paying jobs, investments in new manufacturing operations, or affordable housing projects. A well-defined, policy-based approach would encourage more businesses to consider TIF projects than the current method used by Council to evaluate TIF proposals, which seems to be based on personal opinions and gut feel for the worth of a project.
I support diversification of our tax structure, and have no strong preference for a local-option authority over a statewide sales tax. Either approach has potential benefits and problems, and in the end, it comes down to the most politically feasible path forward. The question misses the point, though, because it is not Council’s request that will make the change happen. We will not get this problem solved until the people of Billings and other Montana cities elect legislators that will prioritize the issue. If complete one-party control in Helena was not enough to even get the issue on the table, what is the path forward?
All that being said, the recent economic downturn should give everyone pause about shifting too much towards a sales tax. Property taxes are of course focused on property owners in town, but they are stable and predictable. Sales taxes spread the burden across everyone using city resources, but can escalate problems when economic conditions go south. If/when we move forward with a sales tax, I would want to see a balanced approach that is (1) revenue neutral in the first year, (2) exempts essentials like groceries and prescription drugs, (3) applies equally to online and local purchases, (4) is supported by data showing long-term revenue growth at least comparable to the current system, and (5) is dedicated to support our general fund departments such as police, fire, and parks.
Park District 1, an important part of our current parks funding, was affected by this year’s Legislature and will now sunset in 2024. PD1 has helped tremendously with capital maintenance in our parks, and we can’t afford to lose it. But we also have to consider how we fund the completion of parks throughout our community that have gone undeveloped or under-developed for decades.
This past year, the Parks Board examined funding mechanisms for both operations and maintenance as well as the major backlogged parks and trails projects. We included parks like Coulson, Cottonwood, Castle Rock, Centennial, Poly Vista, and the anticipated West End reservoirs, along with the Stagecoach and Canyon Creek trail projects.
Even before the Legislature convened, we made the decision that the ongoing battle over PD1 was no longer worth the aggravation. We recommended two options. Option 1 would be a mill levy for parks operation and maintenance costs combined with a bond issue for completing our backlogged projects. Option 2 would be a single mill levy that supported operations and maintenance and also had mills dedicated to new development projects. Either option would have addressed our long-deferred development needs as well as secured parks and trails funding for at least the next 10-15 years.
At the time we presented to Council, the City was recommending that we address parks funding by moving all parks funding out of the general fund and into PD1. The Legislature’s action made the City’s recommendation moot. One option that the Parks Board had ruled out earlier, a dedicated voter-approved parks and trails district to replace PD1, may now be preferred by City administration. Given the additional restrictions that the Legislature has placed on special districts, I don’t think this is necessarily a better option than a dedicated mill levy. But either way, I believe we’ll have this conversation in 2022, and I look forward to helping solve this decades-long problem in our community.
The 2020 State of the Workforce report from Billings Works doesn’t indicate housing as a recruiting challenge. The employer survey in that report indicated that 4% of employers ended up not hiring someone because of housing issues (which may actually include challenges other than availability or affordability). Certainly, we all feel like things have changed in the past year, but I’m reluctant to make policy decisions on feelings or anecdotal evidence. I’d like to see real data supporting the question.
We also have to realize that any attempts to interfere with the housing market are likely to not make an impact for at least 18 months. That means that anything Council may do to try to help might actually end up being counter-productive. For example, we might end up giving incentives for projects that would have gone forward without them. Because of the long lead times in housing development, we need to tread carefully here.
Regardless, we do need to ensure that our Re-Code review process is resolving any reported issues in a timely manner, and that we don’t wait another 40 years to make updates. It’s much easier to deal with small incremental adjustments than earth-shifting changes.
In addition, we could encourage in-fill development in places that are connected to existing infrastructure by adjusting TIF policies to incentivize new developments meeting specific criteria along identified SRTS paths and MET Transit routes. We might also use City resources to help developers take advantage of the Housing Trust Fund and other state and federal programs designed to increase the supply of affordable housing.