Subscribe for 17¢ / day

Local residents overwhelmingly think Billings is a good place to live, but they also feel some things need improving.

At least that’s what people responding to a survey said.

The results of the survey were part of a “Community Conversation” Tuesday night at the First Presbyterian Church.

About a dozen people heard city officials discuss the survey, priority-based budgeting and updates on the police and fire departments.

Earlier this year, surveys covering a range of public services were sent to 1,200 residents, said Liz Kampa-Weatherwax of the city of Billings. Thirty-seven percent replied.

Questions asked were similar to those in a 2009 survey.

City residents said the most pressing issues for the city to address were public safety, crime and safety services.

Traffic enforcement, traffic lights, public transportation and economic development were other priorities.

While 83 percent said that Billings was a good or excellent place to live, fewer people felt safe from crime in different parts of the city than the last survey. Only 26 percent said they felt safe downtown after dark.

Yet 65 percent said they rated the Billings Police Department positively, down only slightly from 66 percent in 2009.

Billings Police Chief Rich St. John told those gathered that concerns about crime downtown may have been triggered by an isolated criminal event happening about the time the surveys were sent out.

Compared to several years ago, downtown now is “extremely safe” because of better lighting, building renovations and patrols by two police officers funded by the Downtown Billings Association, he said.

One notable improvement in this year’s survey over the previous one was in alternative transportation.

Residents said they had a much easier time walking, bicycling and traveling by bus in Billings this year than in 2009. People who said they had more access to biking and walking trails jumped 17 percent.

Complete results of the survey will be available on the city’s website in a few weeks.

City Administrator Tina Volek discussed priority-based budgeting, which the city will be using to control costs. The process links funding to a community’s priorities.

Because the city already has done a good job of curbing expenses, Billings is not on the growing list of cities across the country in bankruptcy, Volek said.

St. John and Billings Fire Chief Paul Dextras said that at least 80 percent of their expenses, which total $35 million for both departments, go to salaries and benefits for employees.

“That’s the way it should be, because people are our most important resource.” Dextras said.

Two more “Community Conversations” will be Wednesday, 11:30 p.m.-1 p.m., in the gym at the Garfield Resource Center, 3212 First Ave. S.; and Thursday, 7-8:30 p.m. at the Oasis Water Park, 543 Aronson Ave.