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With Election Day less than four weeks away, Billings’ two mayoral candidates tried to put some distance between each other Wednesday during a candidate forum attended by about 30 people and sponsored by the Yellowstone Democratic Club.

One example: the proposed One Big Sky Center.

Jeff Essmann said declining downtown tax increment financing revenue “makes me very worried about that project.”

He said he’d oppose a general fund subsidy for the project, calling it “a corporate handout for an out-of-state corporation. If TIF valuation is falling, how does that pencil out?”

Bill Cole noted the project will include $130 million or more in private investment, which would generate about $2 million annually for the TIF district. He said downtown businesses and Billings hoteliers might help cover the ongoing costs of a convention center, which he said will add about 300 jobs and have a $30 million local impact. “For Jeff to say he wouldn’t give one dollar to that project, he’s speaking ideologically,” Cole said.

The two debated with spirit and civility for about 75 minutes after sharing a meal around the same table surrounded by family members. Former Mayor Chuck Tooley moderated the event, held at the Fortin Culinary Center.

“Welcome,” Tooley said at the outset, “to this demonstration of democracy.”

Asked what skill set the new city administrator should possess, Cole said he’s looking for someone who’s “managed large budgets and large groups of people.” He said he hopes the City Council will opt “to pay enough to attract the very best.” Pay for the city’s top administrator “has not been competitive” in recent years, he said, but “it’s money well spent." Paying the new person a competitive wage “sends the message that we really value” the administrator’s work, he said.

Essmann said he wants someone “smart and energetic.” With some council turnover upcoming, “I think we will have a reinvigorated council that wants to set some new directions, a council that wants to set priorities and policies” and will “look to a smart city administrator to execute them.” He said he wants an administrator who “looks at what other communities are doing,” such as using data analytics — staffing and scheduling patterns — to deal with public safety, a topic he said is very much on the minds of residents he’s spoken with.

On state funding cutbacks that will be announced soon, Essmann — who’s still serving in the Montana Legislature — said “there’s still a dance going on” between legislators and Gov. Steve Bullock over “who should make the cuts.” He said he believes Bullock won’t call legislators into a special session “unless a deal is within reach.”

Cole said the Billings mayor “can’t do much” about the cuts “except to monitor carefully to see how they will impact the city.” He said state cuts “will have a ripple effect, which can be substantial” on communities, including increased crime and decreased child welfare. “We need to count on the Legislature to do its best to fix the problem,” Cole said.

Asked to describe how they’d wield the mayoral gavel, Cole — like Essmann, a trained lawyer — called the gavel “a symbol of judiciousness and fairness.” People can live with council decisions, he said, “if they feel they have been heard fairly, and it’s important that the mayor afford them that respect.” He said he’d run meetings “economically and efficiently.”

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Essmann, a Republican, said he learned how to run legislative committee hearings years ago under a Democratic chairman of the Senate Taxation Committee. “It is the duty of the council to listen, but I prefer the legislative approach to the organization of meetings,” he said, adding he’d allow each side to “flesh out the arguments between themselves” and would allow questions from council members while “avoiding debate with members of the public.” He said he’d also take agenda-setting out of the city administrator’s hands and return it to the council — should the newly elected council approve that change.

Both candidates were stumped when asked how much money they’ve raised for their campaign. Essmann said he knows how much cash he has on hand — about $7,300 — and Cole said he knows his major donor, “because you’re looking at him, and my wife.”

Essmann said his major donors — those who have given him the maximum $330 — are “friends of mine in the business community.”

Cole said many of his largest donors are family members who live out of state.

They donate to his campaign, he joked, “because they know they have to have Thanksgiving dinner with me.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.