The two candidates running to represent Ward 4 on the Billings City Council both want to see smart economic growth for the city, but they diverge on how best to make that happen.
Carmelita Dominguez and Pam Purinton were the two candidates to survive a loaded Ward 4 primary in September, which had six candidates, five of them vying to make it to the November general election. (Matthew Senn dropped out after the deadline to have his name removed from the primary ballot.)
Purinton came out on top with 2,269 votes, followed by Dominguez, who had 1,667 votes. The two women ran against Daron Olson, Gordon Olson and Nicole Gallagher. Ward 4 includes the neighborhoods along the Rimrock Road corridor out to about 70th Street West and Rehberg Ranch.
"I want to see Billings thrive," Purinton said.
For that to happen, the city's growth has to be sustainable; it has to be measured and steady, she said.
Dominguez, a project manager and business owner, argues that's where Billings has been for decades. The city needs to pick up the pace if it hopes to attract new industry and a younger workforce to replace retiring boomers, she said.
She acknowledged that pushing for policies and programs that promote faster growth can seem risky. But equally dangerous is doing nothing or doing the same things the city has done for decades, she said.
"There are huge risks no matter what we do," Dominguez said.
She pointed to the city's rising crime rate and the possible public safety mill levy the city council has been debating to deal with it.
Billings has the highest crime rate among Montana's six largest cities with a smaller-than-average police force when compared to similar-sized regional cities. As the city has grown during the past decade it hasn't been able to keep pace with the demand for service, city leaders have said.
Police in Billings have been doing an excellent job with limited resources, Purinton said. And they need more help if they're going to keep Billings safe.
"We need greater resources with police," she said. "We need a bigger jail."
The problem, she said, is that that's expensive. Before the city goes out to ask for more money from property owners it needs to look at how its spending taxpayer dollars and find ways to be more effective and more efficient.
"If you don't have the revenue then you can't keep spending," Purinton said.
For that reason, Purinton said she would want to see exactly what the public safety mill levy would look like and what it would include before she would commit to supporting it. The city council hopes to have those details worked out by early 2020.
The problem with public safety is that no matter what happens, the taxpayers are going to pay, Dominguez said. For that reason, she said she'd support a public safety mill levy.
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Paying up front with a mill levy allows the police and fire departments to be proactive in tackling crime and other public safety issues, she said. As such, it will be important to ensure the mill levy is asking for the right resources, she added.
"I'm very much in support of making sure the public safety mill levy is very much defined," she said.
The best way to attract businesses and new industry to town is for the city to have a handle on public safety, she said. Along with that, the city has to feel welcoming.
The two candidates spoke about the city's attempt in the past to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance and whether it's something necessary for the city's continued growth.
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 NDOs, Billings has not. The last time it came up for a vote in city council in 2014 it failed 6-5.
"I have not been a proponent," Purinton said.
Purinton's opposition stems from her belief that protections already exist for the LGBTQ community under the U.S. Constitution and that it's not a city's role to pass and then try to enforce a nondiscrimination ordinance.
Dominguez disagreed. She believes the city is ready for an NDO and that by passing one it would communicate to the city's LGBTQ community that they have a place here. It would also signal to businesses looking to locate in Billings that the city is welcoming and the right place to set up shop.
"I will be a fighter for the NDO," she said. "On a very personal level I take this to heart."
In the end, Dominguez said the best way to attract and keep the best doctors, the best employees and the best businesses in town is make Billings a place where they all want to live.
Doing that involves risk, but that's something she's comfortable with, she said.
"If we are smart about how we mitigate risk, then that's how we move forward," Dominguez said.
Purinton says slow and steady growth has worked for Billing thus far; she sees no need to change. She understands that risk is involved with the city's economic development but said the city can't be risky with taxpayer dollars.
City council elections will be held Nov. 5; ballots will be mailed out Friday.