Gazette opinion: 2011 agenda: Let's invest wisely in Montana's future

2011-01-02T00:10:00Z 2011-01-07T14:56:52Z Gazette opinion: 2011 agenda: Let's invest wisely in Montana's future The Billings Gazette
January 02, 2011 12:10 am

At the start of the new year, The Billings Gazette editorial board invites our readers to look ahead with us. The board annually compiles a community agenda of several public issues that it believes will be especially important to Billings and Montana in 2011. We believe that the new year provides opportunity to take action on each of them.

The Gazette opinion column will revisit the agenda issues throughout the year to track and promote progress. We invite our readers to weigh in, too, in the Voice of the Reader letters column.

Healthy community

Living in Montana, it's easy to take our great outdoors for granted.

But we do so at peril to our health. In cities such as Billings and small towns all around, more people are moving outside — walking, running, biking, skiing — because they want to take charge of their health and work toward staying well. However, there are some things that a healthy community needs that require more than individual initiative.

That's what we will focus on for our Gazette agenda. Bike trails and lanes, pedestrian-friendly streets, safe streets, accessible, well-maintained public parks and recreation facilities, clean air and water all depend on good public policy.

A great example of this community effort that promotes individual health is the effort to build and expand the bike/pedestrian trails system in Billings. This ongoing work has engaged a wide spectrum of the community, including the Chamber of Commerce, health care organizations, bicyclists, seniors, Billings Police Department and Billings Parks and Recreation Department. Thanks to the efforts of many citizens, the city has nearly 17 miles of bike/pedestrian trails.

Regular exercise, good nutrition, community involvement, that's what healthy people are made of. Over the coming year, we will share information on ways that readers can get involved to improve their own health and offer healthy opportunities to their neighbors.

Montana's DUI habit

Montana has tried to curb its drinking problem in recent years, but still leads the rest of the nation in alcohol-involved crashes. A tragic series of fatal drunken driving crashes has spurred more lawmakers and average citizens to take up the fight against DUI.

Rep. Ken Peterson of Billings is a veteran legislator who has seen many DUI reduction proposals fail in previous sessions. But Peterson said recently that he believes more effective legislation will be enacted in 2011. As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which will handle many of the anti-DUI proposals, Peterson is in a key position to move this legislation forward. He also served as a member of the interim committee that studied impaired driving issues for the past two years.

State Sen. Lynda Moss of Billings also served on the interim committee, and like Peterson, will sponsor legislation aimed at deterring DUI.

We applaud these lawmakers for their commitment to making the roads safer for all of us. And we call on them to be leaders in getting DUI prevention measures passed. We call on all of Yellowstone County's delegation to take a stand for safer, sober, drug-free driving.

Quality K-12 schools

The biggest item in the state of Montana's general fund budget is education from kindergarten through college. The biggest chunk of the education appropriations goes toward the operation of K-12 public schools.

The 2011 Legislature and Gov. Brian Schweitzer will determine how much money Montana K-12 schools are permitted to spend over the next two years and also how much of that funding will be provided by the state.

The biggest portion of school funding is provided on a per-pupil basis. Thus, schools that are losing enrollment will see a decrease in total funding next year — even if per-student funding doesn't change. Enrollment has been dropping statewide.

Per-pupil payments are reduced by 20 cents per student with each additional elementary student until the payment is $200 lower per student for all students exceeding 1,000 in a district. Similarly, the per-pupil high school payment is reduced by 50 cents for each additional student up to the 800th student, so a district receives $400 less for each of the rest of enrolled students than it received for the first student.

The state funding formula also provides a “basic entitlement” of $22,141 for each elementary district and $246,085 for each high school district, regardless of enrollment or the number of schools in a district. The Billings K-8 district, with about 10,000 students, receives the same basic entitlement as a district with 10 students. And the Billings high school district with 5,500 students gets the same basic payment as the smallest Montana high school district.

Together, the state per-student funding and basic entitlement policies force large districts to spend less money per student than small districts. However, small districts also have significant financial challenges to provide a quality education, including qualified teachers, regardless of how few students are in a class.

There are other pieces to the state funding formula, these are the two largest. Overall, the formula is way too complicated. We strongly encourage lawmakers to make it simpler so it will be more transparent.

We encourage all who care about public education to learn about the school funding decisions that will be made in Helena over the next four months and the local school district budgeting decisions that will be finalized this summer by locally elected trustees.

For Billings residents, two community forums have been scheduled to provide the “big picture” on school funding. Billings Superintendent Keith Beeman will provide an overview of state funding proposals and the impact on Billings Public Schools. The forum will be held on Jan. 6 at the Castle Rock Middle School library and repeated on Jan. 11 at the Will James Middle School library. Each forum is scheduled for 6 to 7:30 p.m. and will include time for public comment. Child care will be provided for the convenience of parents attending.

College for community

This fall, Montana State University Billings enrolled more students than ever. The head count was 5,355, including 1,531 students enrolled at the College of Technology.

Over the past decade, this COT has posted a higher percentage of enrollment growth than any other two-year college in Montana. Yet it is still underutilized.

The MSU Billings COT last year had the fourth highest full-time-equivalent enrollment of Montana two-year colleges, behind Missoula, Helena and Great Falls.

Statewide, two-year colleges are serving a much smaller student body than they would be in neighboring states. Nationally, 53 percent of all undergraduates attending public higher education are in two-year colleges. With only 27 percent of its undergrads in two-year colleges this fall, Montana ranks 43rd among the 50 states.

Montana leaders know that most of us will need at least a post-secondary certificate or associate degree to get a job that pays well. But too many Montanans don't yet appreciate the value of two-year colleges. They are:

Avenues to good jobs in two years or less.

Launching pads toward four-year degrees.

The community's college for training, retraining and preparing for college.

Let's spread the word about two-year colleges.

Revitalizing city's center

Despite a general lull in construction during the recession, downtown Billings has been building up. In partnership with the city, private developers are refurbishing the historic Babcock building. The grand old theater is hosting a variety of entertainment again. New businesses have moved into the Babcock's Broadway side.

At Fourth Avenue North and Broadway, a new Stockman Bank is under construction. The handsome brick bank will replace several small, unattractive buildings that had been vacant for years.

The historic Northern Hotel is undergoing a complete renovation with private investors planning to turn the Northern into an upscale conference hotel. All of downtown Billings looks forward to that hotel's grand reopening.

The biggest downtown project under way is the new federal courthouse. The $60 million project, financed with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act money, is putting a lot of contractors to work in the heart of Billings.

Long-range planning and public support for revitalization encourages private investment in the heart of the city. That's why the Billings City Council has established two tax increment financing districts that cover all of the central business district. One TIFD takes in the downtown area. The other stretches east from the downtown district to the city limits near MetraPark.

TIF districts are complicated and controversial. To find out what the public thinks of these economic development tools and to measure TIF impacts, Montana State University Billings is conducting a study for the city. The results available this year will provide useful information to guide city revitalization.

Better public library

What should a new Billings library look like?

Billings citizens will be asked that question this winter and are scheduled to get some proposals this spring when a design study is presented to the City Council. Replacement or total renovation of the Parmly Billings Library has been on the city's Capital Improvement Plan for years. The present library building contains more space than the library needs, but the space isn't well suited to the needs of library users and the old warehouse-turned-library needs an overhaul of all building systems.

A citizens opinion survey last summer showed strong support for keeping the library near its present Broadway location in the 500 block of Broadway and North 29th Street.

The City Council has directed staff to develop a plan that could be taken to voters in 2011. The city is talking with Stockman Bank and Billings Clinic about acquiring additional property in the 500 block of Broadway by trading city property elsewhere. The public planning process will involve an architect with experience in designing outstanding public libraries, a local architectural firm and the Center for Community Design at the School of Architecture at Montana State University in Bozeman, according to Library Director Bill Cochran. The architects and students will gather public input and deliver design/budget options to the council.

Meanwhile, the Parmly Billings Library Foundation has started a campaign to raise $5 million to help pay for a new downtown library. The fundraising got off to a great start with an anonymous donation of $2 million to construct a new libary of architectural significance.

A new library is expected to cost around $13 million and voters would be asked to approve a bond issue to pay for the balance. The design needs to be popular; the budget needs to be acceptable to a majority of Billings voters.

We look forward to exploring the possibilities for a new library in 2011.

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