Go back to the drawing board. In effect, that’s what the Billings City Council told the city’s Parks, Recreation and Cemetery Board on Monday. The board had proposed spending about $2.3 million in Park District 1 funds during 2014-15.
But some council members balked at the proposal, which included about $1 million in Stewart Park infrastructure improvements and $200,000 to construct large event shelter at Pioneer Park, which would replace a North Park shelter destroyed by bad weather a few years ago.
The council voted 9-1, with Brent Cromley voting “no” and Jani McCall absent, to send the project proposals back to the Parks, Recreation and Cemetery Board for trimming. The city council will reconsider the board’s amended recommendations during its Sept. 22 meeting.
Councilwoman Angela Cimmino said she was “surprised by the dollar amount” of the proposed shelter, which would cover 10-15 picnic tables and be made of wood, according to Michael Whitaker, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department.
“Two hundred thousand dollars can buy you a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in some parts of the community,” she said.
Councilman Denis Pitman said he’d “feel more comfortable” lopping the project list down to about $1.8 million and focusing on deferred maintenance projects, rather than including new construction.
Whitaker replied that the three-year average spending for the district is $2,015,000.
“It is based on projects that the council chooses to fund,” he said.
Asked which items he’d recommend reducing, Whitaker said he’d look at eliminating the event shelter and trimming the Stewart Park infrastructure improvements. That $1.2 million budget had already been trimmed by about $165,000 to help pay for rock removal above Sixth Avenue, he said.
Councilwoman Becky Bird said she believes an item not on the list — improvements to the locker rooms at the pools at South Park and Rose Park — should receive consideration as well.
“They are absolutely awful. They’re disgusting, and they don’t look like they’ve been updated in years,” she said. “I spend a lot of time at the pools in the summer, and they are sorely neglected.”
They may look bad, but they’re clean, Whitaker noted.
He added that the city can sell bonds to pay for any large projects, “so long as it is under the amount the council would like to see.”
A new place to sip a martini
The council unanimously approved an all-purpose liquor license in a vacant tenant space in the Babcock Building, the former home of Z Pizza, at 116 N. Broadway.
Bruce Harper, who holds the liquor license and is an agent for Babcock LLC, said the focus for the 1,500-square-foot facility will be on mixing and serving martinis.
He plans to name the place Doc Harper’s after his father, who practiced medicine in Eastern Montana for many years.
“I like the name,” he told the council, “but I’m not sure it’s what Dad would want. I know it’s what Mom would want.”
While the establishment will serve some snacks as well as microbrews and wine, the focus will be on serving theater-goers and even Saturday-morning farmers’ market customers.
“They might enjoy a mid-morning Bloody Mary,” Harper said.
A tinier city tax bite
The council also unanimously approved 2014-15 city property tax mill levies that will mean a smaller city tax bill for property owners. The owner of a $200,000 home will pay about $450 for the city’s share of taxes, as opposed to last year’s $482 bill.
When no one from the public came forward to testify, Mayor Tom Hanel jokingly chided those present. “No one wants to say thank you for reducing taxes?” he said, smiling.
Still more NDO discussion
Both supporters and opponents of the nondiscrimination ordinance, which the city council voted down Aug. 12 by a 6-5 count, were present for Monday’s meeting, but few spoke.
Abraham Madinger, an associate youth pastor at New Life Church, read from a letter signed by 418 people thanking the council for defeating the ordinance, which would have prevented discrimination against people based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
Mark Hall, an associate pastor at New Life Church, said he “knew there’s been a push” to reconsider the ordinance, and “we ask you to stand by your votes.”
Marty Elizabeth Ortiz asked Hanel what he meant when he said before casting his deciding vote that Billings was not ready for the NDO.
“Obviously the town is conflicted, and I think that conflict points out the need for the NDO for all of us to be protected,” she said. “A lot of the opposition was arguing for the right to discriminate on behalf of their religious beliefs.”
Hanel had no response following Ortiz’s testimony, and added little else after the meeting.
“I think I gave a pretty good presentation (Aug. 12) and I’m going to stand by that,” he said. “I was impressed that this gentleman (gesturing to Madinger) came in with 400 thank-yous.”
A week off
The city council was to have held a work session on Tuesday, Sept. 2, the day following the Labor Day holiday. But with little to discuss, the council decided to bag that meeting and will next meet on Monday, Sept. 8, in regular session.
“You’ve had a long, hard summer,” City Administrator Tina Volek told council members. “Give yourself a break for a week.”