Billings Logan International Airport, 2017

An aerial view of Billings Logan International Airport with Montana State University Billings at lower left, on Dec. 8, 2017

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

On the first day of the new year, The Billings Gazette editorial board looks forward to fresh ideas, new leaders and opportunities to help our community grow its economy while enhancing our quality of life. For readers’ consideration, we offer a 2018 agenda of actions that would further balanced, sustainable growth.

New leadership

New leadership is a high priority in Billings this year. The Billings City Council needs to hire a new city administrator, whose first duties will include naming a new fire chief and finance director. Hiring the administrator must be a top priority for the city council, which will gain four new members this week: Mayor Bill Cole, Ward 2 Councilman Frank Ewalt, Ward 3 Councilwoman Denise Joy and Ward 4 Councilwoman Penny Ronning.

Billings Public Schools must name a successor to Superintendent Terry Bouck, who is retiring at the end of the current school year.

Downtown Billings Alliance must address a turnover in top management with the upcoming departure of Lisa Harmon and the recent retirement of Greg Kruger. One Big Sky Center, a concept for transforming downtown and the adjoining medical corridor, will be up for discussion as the potential developer, Hammes Company, drafts a proposal that would require public financing for a convention center. Hammes has presented exciting ideas for downtown, and city leaders must prepare to review proposals with open minds and due diligence.

The city council also should expect to hear from the owners of the Radisson hotel near King Avenue and Interstate 90. A Radisson representative recently announced plans to upgrade the adjoining Montana Trade Center and former Holiday Inn Grand convention center. The Radisson indicated that they may seek partial funding from the city.

MSU Billings

The Montana University System has to appoint a chancellor for Montana State University Billings. Ron Larsen has been serving as interim chancellor for nearly a year.

MSUB Billings really needs a chancellor who will stay more than a couple of years and invest the energy into revving up this urban campus that should and can become more vital to our community and state. Student enrollment has been trending down, even as skilled jobs go unfilled in Billings and the region. Health career education is an obvious need and there’s no better place to expand that field than in Billings, the region’s medical center.

The long-awaited science building renovation and expansion would provide health care students the updated classroom and lab space they will need. Let’s make 2018 the year that MSUB actually completes fundraising and starts construction on the Yellowstone Allied Health and Science Building.

Healthy workforce

The shortage of physicians, nurses, therapists, licensed addiction counselors and other health care professionals is one of the greatest threats to health care access for Montanans and most Americans. But there are other challenges, including instability in the individual insurance market, rising costs, uncertainty of federal support for Medicare and Medicaid, cuts to state health programs and reductions in the rates Montana Medicaid pays those who care for poor children, elders and disabled Montanans.

The budget decisions that Congress and the Montana Legislature make this year and in the 2019 Legislature will have profound effects on our health care. The choices that Montanans make on the June and November ballots will affect their health care.

Billings airport

Billings travelers and business should get involved in designing an airport to serve our city for the next 20 years. Billings Logan International Airport will be designing a major terminal expansion-remodel this year. One of the first steps will be to invite comments and suggestions in public meetings early this year, according to Kevin Ploehn, city airport director.

A few weeks ago, the planning process officially kicked off with Morrison Maierle and A&E Architects. Construction should start in the first half of 2019 and be completed within two years.

The city-owned airport, which receives no local tax support, is looking to expand its flight choices. The new direct connections to Dallas-Fort Worth have generated a lot of business with American Airlines “offering very competitive prices.” In November alone, American flew 11,330 passengers out of Billings. Ploehn expects that pricing to result in some reimbursement on the revenue guarantee that is funded by a federal grant and contributions from local businesses.

The airport and the Billings Chamber of Commerce have teamed up to woo United Airlines to add direct flights from Billings to San Francisco. Ploehn said Billings is “high othe list” and could see San Francisco nonstops in 2018.

Public safety

With news of murders, police-involved shootings, illegal drugs, thefts and burglaries, public safety is top of mind for most Billings residents. The presence of transient or homeless individuals, especially on downtown streets and in camps along Rims and river, seems to be increasing.

Drug abuse — including alcohol — is a factor in those problems. The solutions must involve: preventing abuse, effectively treating people who are addicted and enforcing drug laws in ways that motivate addicts to get clean and get out of the system.

Police Chief Rich St. John recently estimated that 90 percent of local property crime is related to drugs. Meth is the worst offender, then heroin and opioids, then marijuana, he said. Preliminary investigation indicates that meth was a factor in all the local officer-involved shootings of 2017, St. John said. 

St. John and other Billings area law enforcement and addiction treatment leaders recently discussed drug problems when U.S. Sen. Jon Tester convened a roundtable to ask how he can help.

The single biggest factor for reducing the toll of drug addiction is maintaining the state-federal Medicaid expansion that provides treatment access to low-income individuals — regardless of age. By the time they need or seek treatment, most addicts are jobless and broke.

Congress must abolish a rule that keeps Medicaid patients out of residential addiction treatment facilities with more than 16 beds. Tester already is a cosponsor of bipartisan legislation to accomplish that urgent change, which would instantly reduce the waiting time in Billings for Medicaid patients to get drug treatment at Rimrock in Billings. Montana’s entire delegation should sign on.

On the state level, Rimrock CEO Lenette Kosovich described difficulties in getting well qualified counselors who have worked in other states licensed in Montana. The Montana Department of Commerce must step up to remove this bottleneck that exacerbates the mental health professional workforce shortage.

Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito recognizes that reducing drug abuse requires slowing both supply and demand. That’s why he started a small program to quickly get first-time drug offenders into treatment and out of the system — if they stay off drugs. Twito and the courts need sufficient resources to divert more drug abusers from jail and prison to treatment and sober living.

Quality of life

All of the items on this agenda enhance our quality of life, but none more than the explosion of entertainment offerings Billings is seeing. The 2017 local concert lineup was stellar from MetraPark to the Pub Station and many other local venues. At MetraPark, marketing director Ray Massie and general manager Bill Dutcher have created a winning team that’s bringing top acts to our city like never before. Rod Stewart has already scheduled his first-ever Montana concert for the Rimrock Auto Arena this spring.

Music, theater, culture, parks and trails aren’t just fun; these are amenities people want as they decide where to live and work. An array of entertainment choices is important to our growing, thriving city.

On Jan. 1, Billings is poised for change. It’s up to us, the citizens of Montana’s largest city, to hold our elected and appointed leaders accountable for representing us and delivering good value for tax dollars, for managing growth responsibly and for enhancing the quality of life that draws people to Billings — and keeps them here.

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