What infrastructure does the city of Billings plan to invest in over the next five years?
According to the draft Capital Improvement Plan that the City Council has been revising since November, 41% of the total $440.8 million in projects would be for utilities, basically for water and sewer. The second biggest chunk in the yet-to-be-finalized plan is 21% for transportation projects, then 13% for airport projects, 9% for facilities (mostly for a new City Hall that won't be built without voter approval) and 7% for recreation (mostly for a south Billings aquatics center that would be financed through revenue bonds sold by a tax increment financing district).
Accounting for just slivers of the planning pie, city park projects are a measly 3% of the total while public safety (two new fire stations) is 1%. One of the most recent changes is to take a needed West End station out of the plan for 2025, thus cutting the public safety projects to about half of 1%. The Heights fire station that is needed to bring Heights neighborhoods within the city limits up to the national average for emergency response times isn't in the plan until FY 2022. Both of those fire stations are needed right now. Neither will ever be built unless the City Council asks voters to fund them as part of a public safety levy and voters approve such a levy.
Few people get enthusiastic about increasing taxes or fees. But if our growing city is to have adequate fire, police and emergency communications coverage, we must pay for it.
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The council voted to delay action on park capital projects till Dec. 16. The Park Board that advises the council has recommended increasing the citywide park district fee to improve park facilities and services. Some council members have indicated they want to reduce or even eliminate the citywide park district fee, which would reduce the money available for parks.
For the next five years, the CIP includes a grand total of $13.5 million in city parks projects. That's just over $2 million per year for our city of 114,000 people and dozens of parks. Don't look for much new, expanded or update park facilities on that spending plan.
City leaders are smart to plan years ahead for capital improvements. The editorial board is bringing up these points to urge council members to keep the big picture in mind as they wrestle with the details. These are hard decisions — spending public money, asking voters to approve more, boosting funds to keep up with inflation and community growth.
But if Billings fails to meet demands for services, what happens to the quality of life residents cherish? Will Billings be the kind of place that professionals, other workers, businesses and young families want to call home?