Gazette opinion: Community action agenda for 2014

2014-01-01T00:00:00Z 2014-01-01T07:15:02Z Gazette opinion: Community action agenda for 2014 The Billings Gazette
January 01, 2014 12:00 am

On New Year’s Day, The Billings Gazette editorial board looks ahead. We have discussed the challenges and opportunities 2014 may bring to our community and state. Here, for the consideration of our valued readers are our thoughts on areas that deserve attention and action over the next 12 months. Our 2014 community agenda items aren’t listed in any particular order. All of them are important for those of us who live and work in the Yellowstone Valley and beyond.

Managing growth

Leaders from different levels of government and the community must come together to continue to talk about what growth means for Billings and the area. From a demographic standpoint, Billings is on the verge of moving from a town to city, and with it comes the opportunities and challenges of urbanization. There are opportunities to promote business in Billings, but what about the impact of growth on crime? The schools? Social services? Which leaders will step up and respond? How can we respond in a thoughtful, deliberate way? Our leaders should be taking stock of other communities which have grown, looking for opportunities to learn how to manage growth as well as how to promote our community.

Most of the Bakken oil production has been on the North Dakota side of the deep, underground oil reserve. However, serving the drilling and production industry is growing businesses all the way to Billings. Construction in Yellowstone County is very healthy, Patrick Barkey, head of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana said recently.

At 3.5 percent Yellowstone County’s jobless rate is as low as it was before the 2008 financial crisis. Basically, the county is at full employment. Local employers need more, well-trained workers and wages are trending upward.

The Billings Chamber of Commerce has recognized the importance of quality of life to a growing community in its strong support for the 2013 school levies and development of city trails. Businesses and workers who can locate anywhere want excellent schools, recreational opportunities (parks, trails, sports), top-notch health care and public safety.

Better mental health care

Lack of insurance for mental illnesses, especially for serious mental illnesses among adults, continues to be a huge barrier to timely, appropriate care in Montana. So long as impoverished adults are left out of Montana Medicaid, local agencies will continue to struggle to meet the needs of patients nobody wants to pay for. Montana continues to have one of the worst rates of suicide among the 50 states. Difficulty in accessing mental health care contributes to that toll.

The Montana Addictive and Mental Disorders Division serves about 20,000 seriously mentally ill adults. Additionally, more than 8,500 Montanans receive publicly funded chemical dependency treatment each year. All of these services are limited, either by eligibility requirements or by the amount of federal or state funds appropriated by the Legislature.

Virtually all of the 20,000 mental health patients get some care from private, community providers. Most of the state-funded addiction treatment is provided through private organizations. There has always been a struggle to adequately fund these community-based services.

As 2013 ended, the Mental Health Center in Billings has run out of money for a key program to serve indigent Montanans who don’t qualify for Medicaid. The Community Crisis Center, a partnership of several local health care organizations, runs on a shoe-string budget and relies on year-to-year state grants to help keep its doors open 24/7 to homeless people in crisis with mental illnesses and addictions. Most of its clients also are homeless.

In years past, communication between state leadership and community care providers was poor. We will challenge state leaders in 2014 to work more closely with community care providers to make Montana’s system work better for Montanans who need effective community treatment to avoid hospitalization and live more independent, productive lives.

Protecting children

The 2013 Legislature strengthened criminal child abuse laws, and closed a loophole in reporting to ensure that potentially criminal cases are promptly referred to law enforcement and designating certain highly dangerous acts as felony child endangerment.

However, despite serious concerns raised over the deaths of several young Montana children who were in foster care or who had been left at home after abuse was reported, the 2013 Legislature refused to significantly increase resources for state child protection services. The result is continuation of burnout, understaffing and overworking. Caseworkers are poorly paid and turnover is high. It’s time to build a case for action in Gov. Steve Bullock’s executive budget and the 2015 Legislature.

Making graduation matter

More than 2,000 Montana students drop out each year. We can do better.

That is the rallying cry from Graduation Matters Montana (gmm.mt.gov), a program led by Superintendent of Public Instruction Denise Juneau.

As 2013 ended, 33 Montana communities had launched graduation matters programs. The state’s dropout rate is decreasing. The Office of Public Instruction reports that 582 fewer students dropped out during the 2011-2012 school year than in the 2008-2009 school year.

More than 250 local business and community organizations are partnering with their school district on Graduation Matters.

Importantly, OPI has partnered with the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education to get more students thinking seriously and realistically about post-secondary education. One result of that OCHE partnership is that every Montana high school junior in public schools had the opportunity last spring to take the ACT college entrance exam for no charge at their school. More than 9,000 juniors took the test with hundreds of them learning for the first time that they qualified for college admission and scholarships.

In Billings Public Schools, the dropout rate has tended to be higher than the state average. Graduation Matters Billings was launched two years ago, and has been quiet for a while. But United Way of Yellowstone County and community leaders in business and education have been gearing up for a new effort in 2014.

With three levies approved in 2013, Billings Public Schools gained resources to hire more teachers, add technology and make facilities safer, larger and more functional for a growing student body. There's much work to do to carry out voters' directives on the levy projects. At the same time, the school district must drill down to identify reasons why students don't complete school and offer more alternatives the provide education students need.

Strengthening safety net

Population growth and change and change are straining the region’s social safety net. Every helping agency in Billings reports more people needing help because they cannot afford food and housing.

Helping agencies have seen an influx of needy people who have come here with dreams of working in the oil patch. Not all found jobs that pay well. Not all found affordable homes. Some lack job skills. Rents are rising, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits have been cut, and hundreds of Billings K-12 students are homeless. Private and public agencies must work more collaboratively to help the needy and to tell the public what is happening.

The number of child abuse and neglect cases keeps climbing. Private and public agencies are struggling to keep up.

In this time of challenge, helping agencies must work together. Better communication and cooperation will stretch limited resources further. Moreover, when charities can unite to carry a shared message to the Legislature, they are most likely to get lawmakers’ attention. Concerned Montanans must present the needs of disadvantaged people to community leaders and the 2015 Legislature.

Boosting public safety

The Billings Police Department is authorized to hire 140 sworn officers to keep the peace in our growing city of 100,000. Is that force sufficient? Can these resources be used more efficiently and effectively?

Members of the City Council have discussed how soon the city may need to ask voters to increase the public safety levy that provides part of the funding for the police and fire departments.

A series of home invasions and rapes over several months in 2013 made many residents worry about their personal safety. Billings police eventually arrested a suspect who is jailed awaiting trial on numerous felony charges. Meanwhile, the number of crime reports has been trending up as the city grows. For example, police logged 646 reports of partner family member assault in 2012, compared to 587 reports in 2011. The number of PFMA arrests increased, too.

In 2012, BPD officers were dispatched to 73,299 service calls, and increase of 23 percent from 2008.

The Billings Police Department has been stretched thinner as this city has grown. It's time to take a detailed look at how the department is operating and what changes are required to meet the needs of our growing city. City Council members have talked about raising the public safety levy. The community first needs to understand what BPD's resources and limits are.

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