A $25,000 funding request by a Not in Our Town steering committee — asking Billings taxpayers to help pay for a national gathering in Billings in June — is being met with mixed reaction by City Council members.
The council — 10 members plus Mayor Tom Hanel — is expected to decide on the request as soon as its April 14 meeting. The request, made by former Mayor Chuck Tooley, packed City Council chambers Monday and spawned dozens of emails to the council, mostly from people opposed to the request.
Five council members — Shaun Brown, Angela Cimmino, Ken Crouch, Jani McCall and Denis Pitman — responded by email to a Gazette request for comment on the proposal.
Brown praised NIOT, calling it “as great as it is because the citizens of Billings crossed social, economical and religious boundaries and stepped up to show that hate crimes and intimidation would not be tolerated in Billings.”
But “all that said, I do not support ‘donating’ moneys collected through taxes to any organization regardless (of) the amount. As council members, our primary role is to manage the budget and thus be good stewards of all taxes collected and utilize those funds to deliver services to Billings citizens.”
McCall said she thinks the NIOT conference “is going to be an excellent event and I am in full support.” She noted that the council has provided tax dollars to private organizations in the past and said she has “some reservations and I am not sure what my vote will be on the funding request. I see this mainly from a precedent-setting view and the use of taxpayers’ dollars.”
Crouch called the request “not too much” because “we would be buying a page in the (conference) program and welcoming visitors from around the world.” What Crouch called “too much” was the reaction to the proposal.
Cimmino said she celebrates the 20-year NIOT commemoration in spirit, but is “hesitant to put forth any dollar amount of public funding for the June event, as we need to continue to evaluate costs in the city’s priority-based budget now being reviewed.
“Businesspersons and residents have an opportunity of making freewill donations financially supporting the gathering in June,” she said. “In addition, I thoroughly endorse Mayor Tom Hanel issuing a proclamation celebrating this anniversary.”
Pitman said he favors a proclamation of support for the organization but “I don’t think we should financially contribute to this gathering.
“I believe that if we start doing this we will see more applications for use of this money which is not what this (discretionary) fund or the general fund was set up for.” It’s a “great concern as our budget becomes tighter and tighter and we are seeking (a) safety mill levy that we be very frugal on how we use the taxpayers’ money.”
Brown said he believes it “too soon to comment” on a non-discrimination ordinance scheduled to be brought before the council this summer, once the budget process is complete.
Likewise, Cimmino said that when the proposed ordinance comes before the council this summer, “we will review its merit with careful consideration in a fair and balanced fashion as we do all City ordinances.”
Crouch said he believes it might be instructive for a reporter to talk to the mayor and council in Montana communities that have adopted non-discrimination ordinances, including Missoula, Helena and Butte.
Pitman said he believes that the proposed ordinance requires that “all parties have a place at the table” before the council decides. Even then, “I would think this is such a significant public concern that I would support the council putting this issue before the voters.”
McCall noted the process for crafting an ordinance came about because it was her council initiative.
“I will shepherd it along,” she said, adding that she requested that the council wait before acting on the initiative until the budget process is complete in June in order not to put “additional pressure on staff during budget preparation.”
The timing of the initiative “had nothing to do with the NIOT event at all,” she said. “I initiated this … ordinance because I strongly believe that all people in our community should have equal rights and protections under the law. This NDO will prohibit people from discriminating against someone because of that person’s sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.”