A well-planned trip can help generate out-of-the-box ideas.
Such was the aspiration of a Billings Chamber of Commerce visit last week to Sioux Fall, S.D., a city about 50 percent larger than Billings in population, but similar in many respects.
A group of 25 Billings folks met with Sioux Falls government and business leaders, toured a $115 million, 12,000-seat arena under construction, saw the nearby 3,250-seat sports arena and a complex of multi-sport fields with soft turf, visited the Great Plains Zoo, admired the city’s extensive park system and its thriving business sector.
A public-private partnership is bringing eight National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II national championships to the city.
Invested in city parks
Gazette reporter Mike Ferguson, who was part of the Billings tour group, found a Sioux Falls official with particular insight into how the two cities compare. Don Kearney, who previously headed Billings Parks and Recreation Department, now is parks director for Sioux Falls. Kearney said the South Dakota city invests more in its parks than Billings does. Sioux Falls has about four times the park staff as Billings.
“We’ve got more resources by far here,” Kearney said. “With $20 million, you can get a lot of work done.”
The Great Plains Zoo houses 1,000 animals and counted 256,000 visitors last year. It’s an attraction that recruiters promote to potential employees with young families. The zoo receives more than a third of its $3.7 million budget from city funds.
By contrast, ZooMontana receives no tax support, has about 120 animals and 70,000 annual visitors.
As Ferguson previously reported, Sioux Falls has a significant revenue source that Billings doesn’t: a 2 percent sales tax that is added onto the state sales tax. One cent of the city sales tax is used for capital projects, one cent is used for city operations. The city’s sales tax revenue increased 8 percent last year.
We cannot count how many times over the years Billings business and community leaders have pleaded with the Montana Legislature to allow all cities the option of putting a local sales tax to a vote of the people. Every attempt has been shot down. The local option tax didn’t get any traction at all in the last Legislature.
Montana law does allow local sales taxes, but only for cities with populations under 5,500 that derive most of their jobs from recreation. Montana law also limits sales taxes to no more than 4 percent.
Red Lodge, West Yellowstone, Big Sky and Whitefish are among the communities with sales taxes approved and reapproved by local voters. Those communities have used sales tax revenues to pave streets, improve water systems and provide other public services used by residents and visitors.
Billings voters have approved investments in their community: a new baseball park, a new public library, new and renovated public schools. However, all those investments must be made through property taxes — the only revenue source state law allows most local governments.
The Sioux Falls features that impressed Billings visitors illustrate what well-planned use of sales tax revenues can do for a community. Maybe the Billings Chamber should take state legislators to Sioux Falls, starting with the Yellowstone County delegation.