Billings hasn’t had a public safety mill levy pass since 2004, and in the intervening 15 years our city has expanded exponentially. Our force capacity is understaffed for a city of our size and we can see the results in the rising crime rates. In many cases officers are using personal funds, or fundraising, just to have adequate equipment and training. A mill levy is currently the only way for the city to generate the revenue we need to make sure our officers have the resources and support needed.
Second, we need to expand our economic base. We can do this by investing in our downtown so more people live and work in the core—this generates more in revenue (taxes) than development on the outskirts of the city, and comes with the added bonus of getting to use the old neighborhood fire stations. Investment in the downtown is like installing a fleet of new lightbulbs; it can power the entire city, particularly our public safety needs as we grow.
We need to move forward with a comprehensive development plan, such as One Big Sky, and explore funding models like Opportunity Zones. We have a strong business community in Billings, but they are continually running into roadblocks. Again and again we see businesses flee the downtown not because of management, but because of *city* issues: public safety, parking, lack of affordable housing, depressed foot traffic. As someone who used to run a small business, I see Council’s role as one of forward-thinking, strategic support. For instance, if our city lacks the public infrastructure necessary for technology start-ups, we will never attract or sustain these businesses. Likewise, if our city isn’t attractive to Montana kids, our businesses will continue to face a workforce shortage. Economic development is critical for all of these reasons, and because it’s how we generate additional to support local needs like affordable housing, mental health, and SUD treatment.
Diversifying the Council
Yellowstone County faces an aging population crisis. In ten years 40% of our workforce will be eligible for retirement, and we don’t have the bodies to replace them. Our Montana kids are moving to Bozeman, Missoula, or out of state. One key reason is that when choosing a place to live, younger generations heavily prioritize investment in walkability, downtown living, public transport, and excellent parks/trails. Yet for the last two decades many of these issues have been pushed to the bottom of the council’s priority pile. Now we’re here: the marathon loop doesn’t connect, bike lanes are fractured, our bus system is difficult to use, and we haven’t had a major city park developed in over 35 years. I want the next generation of Montanans to move back home, but that’s never going to happen if we keep doing what we’ve been doing. We need to crack open the budget and figure out how to make significant progress on our trails, bike lanes, and affordable housing. To do this, we need people who can speak directly to these issues and propose innovative solutions.