Throwback Thursday! Here’s something you may not know—in 2010 this woman with pixie-short hair (me) and her husband (Johnathan) started their first business: a fair trade importing company. After years of living in Japan, then Australia, we traveled through Asia and brought home goods from India and Nepal. We loved running our small business — I studied International customs laws and micro-business financing and learned how challenging it is to make a profit off retail (even online retail). It’s a constant ebb-and-flow of funding as you’re always purchasing new stock—in that way it’s not unlike city budgeting. Rarely is there a giant pool of cash to play with. Money comes in and goes back out immediately.
I coffeed earlier this week with a group where we talked about how to accomplish the things we need to accomplish in the city: 1) pubic safety and 2) downtown revitalization, knowing we have such a finite/shrinking pool of resources. Part of my answer was that we need to raise awareness about the fact that we cannot successfully accomplish either of these things without making some kind of change. Options include: a state-wide sales or local-option tax that could be voted on city-wide; a public safety mill levy; support for the 406 Impact bill that could transform the way our cities receive funding for major capital projects, and so on and so on. Essentially: to achieve the community services we need for a population of our size to feel safe and have good jobs going forward, we have to raise revenue. That’s one piece.
I know some will disagree. They will counter by saying we should just slash the budget down to its absolute core. Retain only the essentialest-of-essential services. I agree that we must be vigilant about the public’s money, and I’m all for trimming fat where it can be trimmed. But I also want to push back on the idea that what’s “essential” is universal to all of us. It’s not. Take our kids for example: kids need things like playgrounds and community policemen and moms and dads who aren’t gone 20 hours a day because they’re working two jobs and their bus route got axed. These things (and more) are essential for a wide segment of our society, a segment that has no voice, no vote, and no choice of where in the city they live. In other words, as every parent knows: raising the next generation costs a lot of money; it always has and it always will. While technically we can get by with the bare-bones essentials of having our kids run around naked save for their diapers, everyone homeschooled, neighborhood watch the new police force—that world is lacking what most of us consider the “essential” components of why we moved off the farm and into the relatively-modern world of Billings civilization.
That’s why I think there’s a second piece to consider when we talk about the budget: creative problem-solving. Here an example: as part of the city-wide rezoning project, there’s momentum to allow the building of “accessory dwelling units” in residential zones—what this means is that you could build an apartment over your garage, and legally rent it out. Zoning policy like this costs the city nothing (aside from the time of staff and council, which is already in the budget), but it opens the door for property owners to both 1) raise property values through their own private investment (which increases property taxes collected by the city), and 2) concentrates the population in residential areas that already have city services, reducing the burden on the city to run new sewer, water, utility lines. In most cases there are also ancillary benefits to policies like this, such as the fact that your local cafe gets more patrons, which means they can hire more people, which means they can expand and (yes, now, probably) pay a bit more in taxes. From our local government we need more forward-thinking policies like this that will encourage private investment to work for our economy on multiple levels.
I got my start in business working with fair trade organizations, and a reality of that world is that these groups rarely have a lot of resources. But just like in the fair trade movement, there are ways for a city like Billings to achieve significant improvements to quality of life largely through the twin avenues of raising awareness and altering ordinances/policy. One huge piece is listening to what our neighbors and business owners are telling us, and believing them when they share the barriers they face—and will continue to face. “We need more community policing.” “We need more jobs downtown.” “We need destinations for families.” “We need more than, like, 3 people on the streets after 5pm.” This life is absolutely possible, friends. I’ve been at the doors all week officially meeting my neighbors, and I always try to ask, “Are there any issues you want to put on my radar?” because while parts of this will require raising additional revenue, the creative parts: pocket parks, extended sidewalks, noise ordinances, don’t typically require deep coffers. And that’s what I see as a councilperson’s job—making progress with what’s available while making the case (through strategic planning etc) for why additional revenue will make our city better.