The two candidates running to represent Ward 2 on the Billings City Council each have a history of volunteering and working with various groups to improve their community.
Roy Neese, who was appointed to the council late in 2018, and Randy Heinz, who is running for the council for the first time, have both felt the pull of making Billings a better place. Ward 2 includes the Heights north of Hilltop Road.
"I'm comfortable with knowing what Heights residents need," Neese said.
Neese has served for years on the Heights Task Force and most recently led the group as its chairman until he was appointed to the council last year when Heights representative Larry Brewster resigned.
Heinz, a Navy veteran, has been involved with the community's homeless and transient population.
"I've worked with a lot of nonprofits," he said. "I have a real soft spot for people working paycheck to paycheck."
Neese and Heinz were the top vote-getters in a crowded primary race that included four candidates. Neese came out on top with 1,654 votes, or 49% of the vote. Heinz followed with 656 votes, or 19% of the vote.
The other two candidates in the primary were Roger Gravgaard, who garnered 569 votes, and Michael Richardson, who garnered 420 votes.
One of the central issues in the race is public safety and whether the city should seek a mill levy next year from voters to better fund its police and fire departments and its municipal court.
Both Heinz and Neese say they see the need for increased funding.
"We definitely need to get something going," Neese said. "We've been running behind."
The council has yet to decide what funding the public safety mill levy will include and what programs, projects and personnel it will cover. Neese, who describes himself as a fiscal conservative, is eager to see those details ironed out but said he'd support seeking a mill levy because it gives city residents a chance to have a say on what they want.
"It's going to be up to the voters," he said.
But, he added, it will be vital for the council members to coalesce around a plan they can take to voters. For the long term, he said, it will be necessary for the city to find other funding mechanisms for public safety than just increasing property taxes.
"We've got to find different sources of revenue," he said. "We want to see things other than mill levies."
Heinz agreed that public safety services in town were in need of additional support.
"We've been stagnant for years," he said. "We need to really look at what is needed."
Once the council figures that out, it will have something it can sell to the public, he said.
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For the city to get a handle on public safety it needs to identify the source of the problems, he said. The temptation is to round up the more unsavory elements hanging around the city and pull them off the streets.
"We can't just throw folks in jail," Heinz said. "That's not how you solve the problem."
Sooner or later, he said, they just end up back on the street. To solve these issues the city must find ways to address the root problem, be it substance abuse or mental health, he said.
"We need to work with all the service providers in town," he said.
Neese spoke about the importance of unifying the city. Too often Heights residents or West End residents feel disconnected or even isolated from the rest of the city. For that reason he's a big proponent of the Inner Belt Loop, a proposed roadway that will connect the Heights to the West End via Alkali Creek Road and Zimmerman Trail.
"I see that as a unifier of the city," he said.
Heinz supports the project as well. He's seen how development in the Heights has begun spreading out in that direction, and so for him the road makes sense.
The two candidates had their starkest disagreement over whether Billings needs a nondiscrimination ordinance.
A city-level nondiscrimination ordinance asserts that residents have a right to housing, employment and city services regardless of their religion, ethnicity, sexuality or gender.
While Montana communities like Butte, Bozeman, Helena, Missoula and Whitefish have successfully passed an NDO, Billings has not. The last time it came up for a vote in city council in 2014 it failed 6-5.
A recent story on National Public Radio about an LGBTQ rights case to go before the Supreme Court this year highlighted a gay couple in Billings who said they'd experienced discrimination from a potential landlord and an employer.
The story bothered Heinz, who said Billings was once known for the Not In Our Town movement, when residents pushed back against anti-Semitic attacks that hit the city in the mid-1990s.
With Billings' failure to pass an NDO, Not In Our Town has taken on new meaning, he said.
"We're getting 'Not In Our Town' in the wrong way," Heinz said. "We need to make sure this is the city people want to move to."
Like Heinz, Neese was disappointed in the way Billings was portrayed in the NPR story.
"I don't think our community is like that at all," Neese said.
He believes Billings is a welcoming city and works hard to create space for all its residents regardless of whether it has an NDO on the books. Ultimately he said it's a question for the state to decide, not the city council.
City council elections will be held Nov. 5; ballots will be mailed out Friday.