On the afternoon of Wednesday, Oct. 11, Billings mayoral candidates Bill Cole and Jeff Essmann sat down in a conference room in the Billings Public Library to field questions from Last Best News partners Ed Kemmick and David Crisp.
Ballots for the Nov. 7 municipal election were to have been sent out to registered voters starting on Wednesday, so some people could receive them as early as today, Oct. 20.
The conversation lasts a little less than 55 minutes. You can watch it by clicking on the image above, or you can read the complete transcript below. We tried to be as accurate as possible in typing up a transcript of the conversation, making only the slightest changes to clean up some of the confusion of a normal conversation, but we changed nothing material in what anyone said.
Here is the transcript, which begins with a brief introduction by each candidate, followed by the questions and answers:
Hello, my name is Bill Cole. Billings is a great community. I spent the last 20-plus years making it an even better place, through my role as president of the city-county Planning Board, the Alberta Bair Theater, chairman of the Billings Chamber of Commerce and other organizations. In that time, I’ve learned that Billings is in a race, a competition, and the prize are young people, people who are going to build our tax base, fill our jobs and build our future.
Our competitors are Bozeman, Boise, Bismarck, Seattle, Salt Lake — you know them — and they want those young people just as much as we do. We need to run hard, we need to run fast because we need to fill 32,500 jobs in the next 10 years. We’ve got right now more than 75 vacancies for physician vacancies, more than 200 nursing vacancies. Unfortunately, our ability to attract those young people is hampered by our lack of brand, as a city on the move, an exciting place for young people.
We have to find a way to bridge those gaps, but unfortunately … it’s a little bit like we’re running in a snowmobile suit. We haven’t built a large, public building downtown for 32 years; we haven’t built a large, general-use park in our community for 37 years. How do we solve this problem? How do we make our community an attractive place for young people? Well, that’s why we’re here and that’s what I’m looking forward to talking about with you.
Hi. I’m Jeff Essmann. I’m a candidate for mayor of the city of Billings. I’ve been a small-business man in Billings most of my life, with my wrench in my hand building my dry-cleaning business, which I owned from 1982 to 2006. I decided to leave my post in the Legislature to run for mayor because I see a number of projects that are near and dear to me languishing.
Since I served on the city-county Planning Board with my opponent, Bill Cole, back in the early 2000s, we’ve built portions of our bike-pedestrian net and we’ve been talking about building the Inner Belt Loop. But I haven’t seen any action. I’m frustrated. I think I’d like to see those projects completed and I’ve got ideas on how we can accomplish those goals.
But one thing I’ve learned since I started this campaign is that a major concern of the public — and that’s who we’re elected to serve — is our public safety issue, whether it’s a fear of getting hit by a T-bone car accident as, you know, the light turns green and you’re crossing the intersection, or whether it’s a fear of having your car broken into while it’s parked out on the curb. And I’ve heard about that from a young man in the Boulder School area. He’s not sleeping well at night. That’s an issue we need to address. Our community can’t thrive unless we have a sense of public safety, and so we can make some investments in some things we need to improve our homes and grow our businesses. So, I’d like to put that at the top of the agenda, work to solve those problems and provide a listening ear to the public and achieve your priorities. Thank you.
Kemmick: Well, Bill Cole, Jeff Essmann, thank you for joining us at this forum as you both campaign to be Billings’ next mayor. David and I are going to ask you a number of questions and we ask that you limit your answers to each question to about a minute and a half. As a reminder to people watching this video or reading the transcript on Last Best News, mail-in ballots will be sent out to city voters starting Wednesday, Oct. 18. This is David Crisp, I’m Ed Kemmick, and David is going to pose the first question.
Crisp: So, I think most people would agree that government can and should attract commercial development by building good roads and streets, water and sewer, police and fire departments. But beyond that, what role do you think government should play in attracting new businesses? Mr. Essmann, if you’d start.
Essmann: Well I see a little difference in terms of, for example, undeveloped areas where what you’re talking about is, you know, we need to have the roads, streets and sewers available so people can purchase raw ground and develop. In areas of the town that have been, you know, built up for a while and may be suffering from some blight issues, and I’d point to the area from, like, about North 26th to North 23rd or second from Sixth up to Ninth, the area south of Pioneer Park, I think there’s a fair amount of housing there that’s not owner-occupied, that’s in rough shape; and you know, the bones are not good.
And from that standpoint, you know, it’s urban renewal in terms of acquiring that property and putting it into single ownership so it could be redeveloped, is fine with me. I think from that standpoint you can increase your tax base. I don’t believe you should be doing it with condemnation, and the state of Montana has got prohibitions against that at this point.
Crisp: Mr. Cole?
Cole: So, the question is what role government can play. You know, I think market forces are going to drive most of the decisions made by businesses. What government does is going to be a tangential role. It doesn’t mean it’s unimportant, it doesn’t mean it’s insignificant, but we need to make the opportunities available for the market to work.
That means providing that kind of infrastructure, it means dealing with first things first, public safety, putting police, building that infrastructure, so that the market can work logically. Government can get involved with tax abatements. That’s something that we do now. Establishing TIF districts. One of the greatest successes we’ve had in Billings and throughout Montana are the TIF districts that have been created over the last 20 to 30 years. Those are all the things that government can do.
Government has to be careful not to create barriers. We have an affordability gap with our housing in town. So, although our housing costs are generally at national averages, our income is below average and that makes it harder for people to afford. And we need to make sure that our regulations don’t create excess costs for developers. Government can plan. A developer is after their interest in their project and that’s fine. That’s the way it should be, but their goal is not to define what the city looks like in 20 or 30 years. So, we need to have good planning staff, good city council vision to look and answer the big questions from 30 thousand feet. Where do we want to be in 30 years? So those are some of the things that government can do to encourage jobs, encourage businesses.
Kemmick: On a somewhat related note, I want to ask each of you what your stand is on the One Big Sky Center, which is the proposed downtown development that would include a hotel, residential living, a convention center and parking garage? How much is too much in terms of public money invested in the project? Mr. Cole, we’ll let you go first.
Cole: How much is too much is a matter of fact. It’s a question. It’s a mathematical number. We don’t know very much about this project. The new developers only got involved a couple months ago, so at this point we’re speculating and need to be careful that we not say some things that discourage developers who are interested in putting, latest number, at least $135 million of their own money into a project that could transform downtown. We need to encourage that kind of investment.
We haven’t built a large downtown building for 32 years, since Transwestern. There is a public role. TIF money is being called upon to build public infrastructure, the parking garage, the development of 29th Street, a publicly owned conference center. Those are very accepted roles for TIF dollars and I don’t have any problem with that. Where the rubber hits the road, is long term, whether we need to provide help for the running of the conference center. I have never contemplated any sort of general tax dollars that would go into the construction of One Big Sky Center for the private facilities. That’s never come up. I would not be in favor that. There’s no reason to even contemplate that at this point.
But, conference centers, it’s estimated would bring about $30 million of annual positive impact into our community and bring about 300 jobs. We just need to have an open mind about that. There are ways to finance that. Maybe it could be privately financed. Maybe a downtown business improvement district of other business owners could help pay for some of those costs because typically they don’t cash-flow. They don’t make money. They often do need a subsidy. In Boise, I think it’s somewhere around $639,000. So, we need to be open. We need to look at that. I don’t know, but we have to weigh the benefits against the costs. If we can get $30 million of benefit, it may be worth picking up some portion of that cost, but we need to see the details.
Kemmick: OK. Mr. Essmann?
Essmann: Well, the use of TIF dollars for building a parking garage is, you know, one matter. That’s been traditional in this town. That’s obviously a public facility that could be used by other businesses in the neighborhood. I think where the rubber really meets the road on this issue is the, you know, is especially with the discussion of expansion of the project, is if there will be enough TIF money to provide the subsidy that this out-of-state corporation wants. You know generally I’m against corporate welfare. This is corporate welfare.
And if it’s providing a long-term subsidy for the hotel that operates in that, I’ve taken a very strong position that I don’t think either the money that’s in our $60 million rainy day account should be raided to prop up a shortage of TIF funds and I don’t think the homeowners and small businesses and the entire community should be asked to provide a subsidy either. You know, there are rumors of another competing project out there and while I believe our community, you know, needs to compete in the market, you know, it’s better, it’s always better, if a business invests its own money. Then it’s going to run the project conservatively and it won’t leave the taxpayers on the hook and that’s my concern.
Crisp: Mr. Cole, you appear to be the favored candidate of the Billings Chamber of Commerce in this race. Is what’s good for the Chamber good for Billings, or are there areas in which the interests of the Chamber and the citizens diverge?
Cole: I would challenge the characterization and obviously there is a lot of alignment between the things I’ve been talking about and the things the Chamber has been talking about for many, many years. I am the past chair of the Chamber. There’s a lot of commonality there, but the Chamber has not endorsed me. I did well on their grading mechanism, however that was derived. I wasn’t involved in that process at all.
But the question was, are there things where the Chamber’s interests diverge from the community’s interests. Oh, I am sure there are, but the goal of the Chamber is to build a stronger community, stronger business environment that will benefit everybody. You’d have to tell me. You’d have to give me some specific examples and say whether there is alignment. The chamber is not the entire community. It’s made up of about 1,400 or 1,300 businesses in the community. Those businesses are not the entire community. So, I’d be surprised if there weren’t some variances, but it’s a very, very broad-based organization that’s been very successful. It was in 2015 recognized as the best Chamber in the United State in its size category. So, it has a lot of input from its members and the members are very involved in it.
Crisp: Mr. Essmann, do you want to comment on that?
Essmann: Well, I would like to, you know, I don’t think the Chamber’s grading process, frankly, was all that it was cracked up to be. I was frankly offended that they chose to ask a bunch of questions, provide grades and then refuse to publish our answers to the questions. I mean, why do that? Anybody who wants to see how I answered the Chamber questions can go to my website, essmannforbillings.com and read my answers to the questions.
You know, I think the Chamber is a special interest group. It’s generally, its four positions are occupied by wealthier individuals in the community who may want to create, want to have other members of the community who, you know, are either on fixed-incomes, like our seniors, or are middle-class, you know, incomes and homeowners. They’d like to force them to pay for these amenities, you know, and I think frankly that’s a problem. You know, I don’t have any problem with anybody buying whatever they want to with their own money, but I don’t think it’s proper to, you know, force public expenditure to achieve a goal that may only benefit a portion of the population.
Kemmick: And now, Mr. Essmann, I have one specifically aimed and you and you (looking to Cole) can comment on it too. But, as you know, the City Council is officially non-partisan, meaning candidates run without political party affiliation. So, how would you, as former chairman of the state Republican Party and the Republican speaker of the state House, put aside that intense partisanship and work with your colleagues in this new setting?
Essmann: Thanks for the question. Two answers. A: Former is very important. And I was never speaker of the House. I was Senate president.
Kemmick: Excuse me.
Essmann: That’s OK, but you know, I would encourage anybody to reach out to legislators of both parties in this community and ask them whether I kept my word, whether I dealt fairly and whether I pursued community goals in a bipartisan fashion and I think, you know, I did. When I came to the Legislature, I served in the minority. Kim Gillan and I worked very well together. I, you know, needed her help in order to try to advance my legislation.
You know, and I have worked with Kelly McCarthy and Kathy Kelker in the last session. We worked hard on issues involving MSUB, for example. So, you know, this job is about taking care of our basic public needs, public safety as I said, being No. 1, you know, and the thing that you learn from longtime public service is the necessity of listening to people and having a fair process for them to express their views.
And if I am elected mayor, that’s how I would run those council meetings. That doesn’t mean that everybody’s always going be happy with the outcome, but everybody deserves, you know, both sides need to have their viewpoint heard and, you know, then the council debates each other and then we make a decision. I don’t think I’ve got, you know, I have filled partisan roles, but I don’t think I’m intensely partisan.
Kemmick: OK. You want to say anything about this?
Cole: You know, it really is a question for Jeff and so I think I have a limited role. I don’t have any doubt that Jeff would like to set aside that partisan history and would try to be fair. I think the two questions become: Would he be able to do so? Jeff has had 20 to 30 years of partisan involvement. Those are his people. That’s his world view. He’s taken consistent oppositions on a number of issues that are based on ideology. And even in this race, he’s rested in ideology in saying he would never ask for a tax increase for anything except for possibly, public safety.
I think that’s an ideological answer, not a local government, nonpartisan answer that just requires looking at the facts. So, that’s an issue, but people can make up their own minds about that. I’m sure that Jeff is very sincere in what he’s saying. The other issue is, would the community let him do that given that history? And that’s also something that only the community could answer. I’d just be concerned that there would be tensions in this very hyper-partisan environment in which we live today.
Crisp: Both of you have expressed lack of enthusiasm for reconsidering a nondiscrimination ordinance. But both of you also have expressed an interest in attracting bright young professionals to Billings. Isn’t there some danger that your position on the NDO might undercut those efforts? Mr. Cole, if you’d go first?
Cole: You’re right, we’ve both come out against the NDO. I certainly see the need to attract young people who often have a different view on that. Not always, but sometimes. I wouldn’t call it necessarily an inconsistency, but it is certainly something we need to watch for. We need to as elected officials, go out in the community and consistently communicate that we want this town of ours to be a place that attracts everyone, that welcomes everyone, that everyone can feel safe in their community and feel part of their community.
That may be difficult sometimes with the LGBT community. I would hope that we would be able to show by our actions that, in fact, this is a community where everyone can feel at home and we can work together and move on beyond on the NDO and build our community up. There’s always concern that people will try to tear it down based on that, but I think that we can still have a loving and welcoming community even without an NDO and I think the majority of Billings has come to the same conclusion.
Crisp: Mr. Essmann?
Essmann: I have opposed bringing the NDO back up for reconsideration because it’s a divisive issue, you know, and one of the things I’ve heard while I’ve been conducting the campaign this year, is, you know, how many unhappy people there are with the divided state of our nation. And, you know, I feel it. I think we all feel it. It’s been like a constant campaign for three-plus years now and I think everybody would like to just get a breath, you know.
And I think, you know, if we live our lives properly, if we treat our neighbors as we would like to be treated ourselves, the old golden rule, you know, if we conduct ourselves like I did as a small employer, serving people without discrimination and hiring people without discrimination, every race, gender and orientation, you know, our reputation will survive the fact that we may not meet a litmus test. So, you know, I really think it’s time now, you know, if we want this nation to be a better nation, what better place to start than our own hometown? And I think that if we restore a sense of mutual respect, you know, and give, apply live and let live to everybody, I think we’ll be fine.
Kemmick: So, let me ask each one of you to follow up on that because, I mean, you could have said the same thing about earlier times in our history when protections were extended to other people and those certainly were not non-divisive times — early ’60s, late ’50s. I mean it’s been quite a momentous period for about 60 years, so why not just pass an NDO? If it’s, I mean, it’s nice to believe that we can just hope everybody acts fairly and tolerantly, but why not put some force of law behind that?
Essmann: Well, I would state that the reason is, how it’s been used in certain places and it’s been used to take away the live and let live from one group vs. another. You know, and I think in terms of having, you know, the public interest balanced, you know, and having religious freedom protected, which is what we’re talking about, that that’s the reason, so that is a constitutionally recognized right. The Supreme Court will be taking that up this fall and that’s a decent reason for treating this differently than those other situations.
Kemmick: Mr. Cole?
Cole: You know, I’m a lawyer, so I don’t believe in just passing laws just because they may not do a lot of harm. You’re right in that Bozeman, Missoula and other towns that have passed an NDO, they’ve been kind of non-factors in that they’ve never been enforced. So, is that an argument for or against passing the NDO? As a lawyer, I have very sincere concerns that it violates Montana Code Annotated 7-1-111 sub-paragraph 1, which is a paragraph that prohibits cities from taking action that interferes with the civil or personal relationships of Montanans.
In other words, it’s pre-empted by state law under that provision. We have Title 49, I think it is, which are all the anti-discrimination rules, that deal with race and gender, ethnicity and sex. And arguably, that’s where, legally, this should be done. As Jeff said, there’s no religious exemption for sincerely held religious beliefs. That means that the NDO may have simply been unconstitutional. I don’t believe in passing laws that might be unconstitutional.
We’ll find out in the Masterpiece Theater — or Masterpiece Bakery vs. Colorado Human Rights case. And also, there are administration problems with this, the city administration was very concerned about. And this is a philosophical issue, after the NDO, there was basically a referendum, and four out of the five City Council people elected the next year, largely based on NDO grounds, were opponents to the NDO. And so, yeah, there’s an argument for expressing leadership, but there’s also an argument, what’s the role of City Council, to represent the majority or not?. And I think those are all legitimate reasons not to go down that path.
Kemmick: I’ve got a somewhat complicated question because there is some history to it, so bear with me. Mr. Cole has said he favors a local-option tax, which would have to be authorized by the Legislature and then voted on by the people of Billings. Mr. Essmann has said he is opposed to the idea. So, I want to ask you, Mr. Essmann: the City Charter placed a 74-mill cap on property taxes, to be raised only by a public vote. But the study commission that drafted the City Charter said, in a statement of intent that was attached to the charter, that “under self-government powers, new taxes will be available to the City Council, and these should be considered before property taxes are increased.” However, as you both know, every attempt to craft some kind of substitute for local property taxes, including a local-option sales tax, has been shot down by the Legislature or the courts. So, why shouldn’t the City Council continue to press for the goal envisioned by the drafters of the City Charter?
Essmann: I’ll be happy to answer that question. You know, I think you need to look at the specifics in Senate Bill 331 in the last session. You know, I think a lot of people agree with the concept of local control and giving cities the power to, you know, run their affairs. Everybody agrees with that concept. The problem is how Senate Bill 331 was constructed. And, frankly, it was constructed so that most of the tax would be on Montana residents, either from Billings or from other Montana residents, and frankly that’s the reason I don’t think you’ll ever see it pass the Legislature.
Because whether it’s right or wrong, legislators tend to represent their constituents, not the little cities in their district, but their constituents, and self-interest is at stake. So, the Senate Bill 331 would’ve probably cost the typical Billings household from 140 to 280 bucks a year and it return it promised a $40 tax increase (rebate). That’s a pig in a poke. The Chamber question was, would you support a bill as introduced in the last session, and my answer was no, because it was a bad bill. That’s why it never got out of committee, and why if it’s structured like that again it will never get out of the committee. And for that I got a “C.” So, that’s fine. I try to provide honest answers, not politically popular answers, when it comes to questions of legislation.
Kemmick: Mr. Cole, your thoughts on that?
Cole: I do think that we should pursue, energetically, the ability to choose for ourselves. Helena, with Jeff there, has said, no, you’re not allowed to make this choice for yourself. We should be able to choose. Jeff was a proponent of local option, not in the last session but in the session before that. We are entitled, I think, to try to solve local problems with these local opportunities. But we need to get Helena to take the handcuffs off and let us go our own way — let the voters decide here locally.
Jeff said that he doesn’t think this would pass. Well, that’s kind of a non-answer. I think it would better for Jeff to just take an actual position, and I guess his position is, he’s against local options, but it is a way to shift some portion of that tax burden to the $400 million every year, the business that’s done in our community. Not all of it, in fact not a majority of it. Most of it would be still paid by your or I, or whoever buys luxury goods. Alcohol, prepared meals, rental cars, hotels, things that have a special impact on our visitors. But that’s a way to shift some of that burden. Again, not all of it. It also would provide — nobody wants a tax.
The goal here is not a tax. The goal here is to be able to use those monies for exciting capital projects that will build our community and make it attractive for young people for the next 30 years. And the tax is just a necessary evil to get to that end, and we need to focus on what those needs are. And if there’s other ways to get there, we can talk about it. But people are sick and tired of paying more property taxes; this is an alternative to avoid that. It won’t happen, as Jeff said, unless the mayor of Billings is an energetic proponent of the whole idea.
Essmann: Since he characterized my position, I would like to respond.
Kemmick: Sure. Go ahead.
Essmann: The proposals I carried were for property tax relief. I thought that’s what we were talking about: property tax relief, and I carried bills for that purpose. Senate Bill 331 in the last session was not about property tax relief. It’s obvious, you know. It was about raising money to buy shiny objects, pure and simple. That’s why the amount of rebate was kept so low. So no, I’m not going to support people of modest means having to pay a sales tax on every pint of beer they drink, you know, and every movie ticket they might want to buy, just so we can buy a shiny object that’s desired by wealthier members of our community. I just don’t think that’s fair.
Crisp: Can you envision a bill for a local option sales tax that you would support?
Essmann: Honestly, in the long term, I think, my guess is, the income tax method of supporting Montana state government is probably not going to be working in five to seven years because of the continuing incursion of businesses like Amazon into the retail sales market. It is decimating small businesses in the smaller communities in this state as we speak. And I some evidence of that even on the 200 block of North Broadway.
So, at some point I think perhaps a broad-based sales tax that taxes all goods and services, that, you know, gets rid of the income tax and fully funds education and gets rid of 60 percent of the property tax might have a chance. But are we there yet? No. And is anything going to happen locally in that regard? No, I don’t think so.
Cole: May we continue the conversation?
Crisp: Go ahead.
Cole: The Senate Bill 331 called for, I think it was, 20 or 25 percent mandatory minimum property tax reduction. Communities could go higher than that, so there was a very real opportunity for property tax relief, a rebate back to property tax owners. Jeff made some effort in the negotiation in the last session to shift some of that from residential payers to commercial payers — commercial payers do pay a higher rate — maybe that’s justified, maybe it’s not. In the earlier 2015 effort … we were taking about a provision that was similar, in that 20 percent range. It could go up and it could go down, but there would be some element of it.
If it’s totally tax neutral, in other words if it’s just a shift, well, talk about something that’s not going to happen. That also would be a waste of our time. One thing that we agree on completely, though, is that we need a tax structure for the new world that matches the current economy. A tax based on property ownership of real property — if you have a big business you don’t need to own property. And you may be able to largely avoid those taxes. So something based on the transaction itself, something closer to a sales tax, is probably something that probably makes sense, but it’s not going to happen.
We’ve seen, just in the last gubernatorial race, everybody was crawling over themselves to come out in opposition to a statewide sales tax. The nice thing about a local option tax for Billings is that we would decide for ourselves. And I think that a legislator in Miles City or Glendive is much more likely to let us make that choice for ourselves than to have a sales tax imposed on them. Maybe that would lead to a larger sales tax. I don’t know, I don’t even want to speculate about that. But we have local problems that could be resolved, at least in part, with a local option tax that is consistent, more consistent with our modern economy.
Crisp: So, one thing we often hear from political candidates is that government has to “live within its means.” And, really, the only means that government has are taxes, fees and bonded indebtedness that is approved by voters or by their local elected representatives, so it’s never been quite clear to me exactly what that means, to say that government must live within its means. Mr. Cole, what do you think about that?
Cole: Well, I guess there’s a theoretical question there. I mean the government’s means are the peoples’ means, right? So, is one dollar of tax too much? There are some people who probably say it is. But, we all, it’s kind of like pornography or obscenity or something — you know it when you see it, and at least people have a general sense. And I think we’re kind of coming up to what people will tolerate in the way of property tax because they feel that that’s only one leg of that stool.
I think the reality is, that we need to see where we stand relative to others. What’s one way to measure what our tax burden is? And, we don’t do a very good job as a city saying, where do we stand relative to other cities? I think that ought to be a constant source of discussion. My understanding from work that’s been done by Professor, Doug, is it Wilson, I don’t remember his last name, professor emeritus at MSU in Bozeman is that we are about average. Gee, what a surprise. When you look at the other Montana cities, we’re below average based on a lot of national standards.
You have to be careful in defining what your taxes are. We have this funny system where we have a lot of arterial street fees and the park district fees and things that you and I would call them taxes and we need to lump those in and look at that. But I think we ought to doing a better be doing a better job tracking those and letting people know, hey you’re paying about average, would you like to pay a little more if you get a benefit? They always have to see what it is that they’re getting in exchange for those tax dollars.
Crisp: Mr. Essmann?
Essmann: Well I think that living within our means is a good way for a family to stay out of debt, not have pressure from bill collectors, etc., and I think it’s a good way for the state and the city to operate as well. I believe we can live within our means and complete the Inner Belt Loop, for example, that we can live within our means and connect our bike-pedestrian trails. We need to be a little creative and it is going to mean postponing other projects.
But, you know, I think the question is, do we want to wait forever? We can keep waiting for a magical solution from the Legislature, five years from now, 10 years from now, but I’d just as soon finish a project now. You know, if it is important to attract young people to the community, let’s show them that we can get a couple of signature projects done. You know, we need that Inner Belt Loop built before the East Bypass is constructed, because the Heights is going to boom. And we can’t afford to wait. I mean the current plan of the former city administrator to build a mile each year for seven years is frankly, ludicrous.
You know, we should shuffle that money, bond against our arterial fees and get that thing done within the next four years. We can also do the same to, you know, connect our bike trails and then we have something we can be proud of and then if the public wants to have ambitious goals, we can show them we can get it done. So, that’s what I’d like to bring.
Cole: I hope we can go back at some point because Jeff’s answer was very specific dealing with the Inner Belt Loop and the trails that I wouldn’t want to not continue to talk about those things either now or in a later…
David: I do actually have a question coming up in just a little bit. So, would you agree with Mr. Cole that the city should constantly be evaluating where it stands with respect to other cities in terms of tax burden?
Essmann: Well, we need to assess ourselves with respect to, you know, the health of our economy in general. For example, he points to Boise and the per capita and household income is lower than that here in our great little hometown of Billings. The tax burden in the city of Bozeman, which he points to is, frankly, the highest in the state, of the seven largest communities. So, you know, I think having higher incomes and lower taxes, frankly, is a pretty decent balance
I mean, the races in Bozeman this year are all about affordable housing. What a surprise. You know, you raise the tax burden, you drive down the amount people can pay on the mortgage because it’s all coming out of the same checkbook, and suddenly there’s a rub. They’ve limited their growth. They’ve tried to drive the housing up and now the neighborhoods where the housing is being, you know, the high-rises want to be built, are protesting. So, you know, there’s an action and there’s a reaction. So, I’m not one to be ashamed of the fact that Billings does not have the highest tax rate in the state or around the country.
Cole: Yeah, I wouldn’t want that to somehow suggest that I think that’s a good idea. Obviously, it’s not. My point is, where do we stand? I think there is a lot of expectation that we must be unusually high. If we are, well, we should do something about it. If we’re low, well then that’s also important information. My point is just we need the information and I don’t think there should be any reason we should shirk from that goal.
I am not absolutely sure that’s true about some things with Boise. Yeah, their per capita income may be lower, but they also have some incredible facilities in their community, the convention center and other trail systems and a lot of that is because they have a multi-pronged tax structure including sales taxes and things like that in Idaho.
Bozeman, I’m not sure that’s true that their tax burden is greater. My understanding actually is, their percentage is significantly lower per property because the value of the property tends to be higher. So, they can take a smaller percentage and still fund government. They have a lot of other regulatory problems. It’s very difficult to develop property in Bozeman. As a result, you know, the Walmart is brown and has landscaping and ours is blue and has an ocean of asphalt in front of us because that’s the choice that we have made as a community. Those things are not free, but we need to at least have those kind of conversations, so that we can make choices about them.
Kemmick: This question is a little more inside baseball, and I’m asking it from the perspective of someone who has sat through thousands of City Council meetings in his career. So, one of the most important tasks, which people don’t think about, of the mayor, is to run meetings of the City Council so that they are efficient, fair and productive. Based on your own attendance at previous council meetings, how would run meetings to make them more efficient and productive while still being fair to everyone who attends? Mr. Essmann, why don’t you go first?
Essmann: It’s a great question and we really need to work on that, frankly, I think to the benefit of the public. I think when you’ve got an exhausted council, frankly, you may lead to decisions that are emotional, rather than rational. So, I think the first step is that the council needs to get control of its agenda. I think that’s absolutely essential. Previous councils have given that power to the city administrator and that needs to be restored to the council itself. Giving the agenda power to the city administrator is inconsistent, fundamentally inconsistent, with what the charter says, which is that the City Council sets policy and the city administrator executes it. So, that’s No. 1.
No. 2, you know, I believe you set a goal of how many hours you want that meeting to be. I think you could run the meetings much more efficiently if you called for proponents and opponents to speak separately, provided them an overall time period, similar to a legislative committee, and then have council debate. I don’t like the scene that we have many times of the council members debating members of the public. It’s proper for the decision makers to debate each other on the policy … let the public testify. That’s kind of my approach.
Kemmick: And Mr. Cole?
Cole: Good question again. Jeff and I agree a lot on the need to make some improvements and it sounds like you do, too, Ed. Learn the hard way. Some of the ideas that I’ve had are refining the process for council initiatives. The inside baseball part of that is any council person at the end of a meeting, can throw out what’s called a council initiative, something else they want the council to do, they want staff to do. At that level, or at that time, there’s really no cost involved, so it’s easy to throw out things. Some of which result in great changes, important changes, but it’s very easy. But the problem is it often results in weeks, months, sometimes even years of staff time that nobody quite appreciated going into the process when somebody said, “Hey, why don’t we look into X?” I think by requiring that the initiative process be formalized, if you have an initiative, go to the administrator, work out, define exactly what you want do, see if there’s a way to phase it. Let’s look into, in an early way, whether we should go to a second step. So, that would be one thing.
Something else, I think that council members need to come better prepared. Oftentimes, it’s just clear when they have a big stack, they haven’t had the time or they haven’t taken the time and that often wastes time. I don’t have an easy answer for that. These are largely volunteer people and it’s a fundamental problem with our system as we are getting to be such a big community, but we ask so much of our council members, but maybe that can be improved. I’d like to see time slots on our agenda where we have targets. Well, this is going to take half an hour. We’re not going to be slavish in enforcing that, but at least we have, then, goals and to keep track of our time.
And then, lastly, I think we need to enforce time limits on speakers. Maybe make them longer, but actually try to enforce them in a polite and tactful way. If a council member wants to hear from a speaker longer, well, we can extend that, but that way, there is a clear time and it will also encourage our speakers, staff and members of the public to prepare their remarks so they’re more concise and efficient.
Crisp: To get back to the issue, Mr. Cole, that you wanted to address earlier. This question actually was aimed at Mr. Essmann. You’ve already answered this, at least in part. But let me go ahead and restate it in case you want to add something. You said at a recent forum that you might be willing to support bonded indebtedness to complete the city’s trail system. I wanted to ask if you wanted to elaborate on that proposal, perhaps more than you already have.
Essmann: You bet. The borrowing is OK if it allows you to build an asset that you can use right away. I mean, that’s how most Americans acquire a home. That’s how I built my business. You know, getting the first loan is always the hardest one because the bank wants to see your performance. We have a park assessment fee right now. It’s a little over $2 million a year. I believe the recreational trails system should be made part of the Parks Department mission so that those funds can be used to complete the bike-pedestrian trail, create some connectivity, at least here in the valley.
It will mean that some other park goals will have to take their place in line. But, frankly, I don’t understand why it takes $4 million to build out a park, for example. You know, I talked with a friend of mine who lives across 32nd Street West from Centennial Park and he said, “I’ve been waiting for 25 years just to get it green.” He said, “I think I could probably get that done with a private contractor for about 50 grand.” So, you know, we need to drill down and figure out what’s driving these costs.
But in terms of the public at large … I would suggest that my proposal for bonding these fees would be put to a vote of the public. If it’s a priority for them, and I think it is, based upon everything I’ve seen, then they’ll support it. If it’s not, they won’t; we’ll go another direction. And I think the proposed big increase in the park assessment fee that the parks board has brought forward should also be put to a vote. The people of this city never got to vote on the creation of that park assessment fee. I think if they are confident in the direction that’s going, they should be given the opportunity to either accept that or reject it. So, you know, we need to have more public involvement in this process, not less.
Crisp: And Mr. Cole, if you wanted to answer that question a little more broadly, in light of what you were saying earlier?
Cole: Sure. I just want to make sure, by asking a quick question of Jeff. Were you talking then of taking one of the $2 million of Park District One?
Essmann: Right. Bond against the $1 million for about 10 years.
Cole: And does the bond require a public vote?
Essmann: I think it would be wise to have a vote on it, whether it was required or not.
Cole: OK. Nobody has been a bigger support of trail development in this town than I have. I worked on, kind of in the trenches for 20 years, in developing trails. We’ve just completed, now, lots of planning documents for trails. What we don’t have is a plan for funding the trail development. Trails are extremely popular, and that’s a good thing. So I don’t want to say no to anything that would develop trails.
But this proposal, I’m only hearing Jeff advocating it in the community because those park district dollars, which are about $2 million a year, are in great demand in our park system itself. The city has just completed a master plan that identifies 80 — I would guess closer to $100 million in park needs, within the parks themselves. If the parks community can work something out with the trails committee — or community — and shift some of those funds to trails, I think we should all talk about that. Absolutely.
But, let’s not fool ourselves. When we’re talking about talking a million dollars from parks for the next, say, 10 years, with borrowing costs, maybe we’d have $9 million left. We could make a very good impact on completing our Heritage Trail system. But we’re not going to finish it. Each segment’s about 3 to 4 million dollars, from airport to Zimmerman, from Zimmerman down, then from the zoo to Riverfront Park, Riverfront Park up to Mystic Park. Each one of those is probably 3 to 4 million dollars, maybe even more. So it’s probably even more. So it’s probably in the 15-plus-million-dollar neighborhood, but we could still make a big impact, there’s no doubt about it. But what’s the cost to those parks?
Jeff was earlier saying that my talk about these infrastructure projects are shiny items. I don’t think the completion of Centennial Park is a shiny object. I don’t think fixing, or finishing Castle Rock in the Heights is a shiny object. I don’t think a West End dog park is a shiny object. I don’t think completing Optimist Park on the South Side is a shiny object. There’s some very real costs involved and we need to have those discussions.
Kemmick: I was the next one on the list here, but I see that we’re coming up very close to the time we promised to get you two out of here to attend to all your other things. So I’m going to cede my last question to one that David had because it’s my favorite. So, go ahead, David.
Crisp: OK. So, life is short. Why spend it at City Council meetings? (General laughter.) Mr. Cole?
Cole: You’re right. I’m done. (More laughter.) I knew you were a smart guy David. I know Jeff has probably asked himself the same question. Well, it’s getting shorter. It’s now or never. There was an opportunity with Tom Hanel’s departure. I’ve got a lot of experience, I’ve got some passion for where I’d like to see our city go, I’ve had a lot of people ask me to step into this.
If the direction I’ve described is not something that the city voters want, please don’t vote for me. Because the only thing worse than being trapped at those City Council meetings would be being trapped there under false pretenses, and not have a majority of Billings behind the vision that I have described. If I’ve got that vision, I am willing to serve to the best of my abilities. But I don’t want to be there if people don’t want me to be there. If they’re not willing to buy what I’m selling, please don’t vote for me because that would be hell on earth, I would say. I agree with you, David.
Crisp: Mr. Essmann?
Essmann: Well, life is short, and you know, I was sitting up in Helena and, you know, watching the Senate tax committee get banged on mercilessly by the Billings Chamber of Commerce to pass a local option sales tax so they could provide a subsidy for One Big Sky Center, perhaps? Who knows? I just decided, you know, I would like to ride on that bike-pedestrian trail with my granddaughter. She’s 8. I’m 65. I really don’t want — it’s been, we’ve been working on it for 20 years. Twenty years from now I’ll be 85, and I hope I’ll still be able to ride a bike.
But you know, I would like to get the city moving, I would like to accomplish some goals and I think we can do it. And you know, I think if we’re, we listen to people and let them participate in the decisions, this community can come together and accomplish some goals. So, that’s why I’m running for mayor.
Kemmick: OK. Well, on behalf of Last Best News, we’d like to thank both of you for taking the time to talk with us and with each other. And I also wanted to thank, publicly, our videographers, Stan Parker and Pete Tolton, and also the Billings Public Library for allowing us to meet here in one of its conference rooms. So, again, thanks a lot.