On the first day of 2019, The Gazette editorial board looks forward to what our community and state can accomplish in the new year. With the Montana Legislature convening next week for its biennial 90-day session, there is opportunity to make positive changes at the state level.

Billings has a new city administrator in Chris Kulkulski and the majority of the 11-member council were not in office at the end of 2017. Newly elected Don Jones joins the Yellowstone County Commission. We look forward to hearing from, talking and working with these new local leaders. Their time and energy will be needed to sustain and improve the policies that promote the kind of healthy businesses and lifestyles we Montanans value.

Public safety

Let’s start with basic needs: Community safety. Billings Police Department, perennially understaffed was short more than a dozen officers from its authorized strength this fall. The authorized strength is too small for this growing city of 115,000 residents. Frankly, the BPD ought to have another 20 or so officers so that it won’t be shorthanded on patrol and it will have the staff to do more crime prevention – instead of mostly responding to problems that have already caused injury, loss or property damage.

How to pay for more cops? That brings us to another basic need: Alternative sources for adequately funding local government. As most Gazette readers know, Montana’s cities, counties, school districts, fire districts and other public service districts are funded mostly by property taxes. There is considerable displeasure from property owners at being the major source of local tax support. But state law expressly prohibits local governments from using other types of taxes.

In Billings, the city charter forbids any tax increase unless it is approved by a majority of voters.

Tax alternatives

Local governments have long sought the Legislature’s permission to simply ask local voters for other taxes to supplement or replace property tax revenues, but so far the answer has been “no” for Billings and the state’s other large cities.

Local governments did receive a boost in street and road funds in 2017, thanks to a new state law that raised the fuel tax and allocated a big slice of the new revenue to local governments.

However, that road money cannot be used for police or other needs. Yellowstone County lawmakers should be leaders in creating options for sustainable local government revenue. Billings, Bozeman, Missoula, Kalispell, Helena and Great Falls are the engines powering our state economy. These urban areas provide jobs, specialized health care, entertainment and higher education that benefits their rural neighbors, too.

One Big Sky District

Yellowstone County economic development leaders are seeking the Legislature’s help in attracting major investment to downtown Billings. They are talking up a bill that would offer private investors some public funds to offset costs of public infrastructure for the One Big Sky District. This idea for generating private investment in new commercial, residential, health-related and education-related development could be a model for other Montana cities looking to design and direct the growth of their communities.

Sen. Roger Webb, R-Billings, told The Gazette that he is working with the One Big Sky proponents to introduce a bill. But as of Friday, Webb had not received their bill proposal in writing.

We ask Yellowstone County lawmakers to listen to the One Big Sky District plan, study the legislation when it is introduced and do what they can do turn this vision of a more attractive, more vibrant city into reality.

Part of the One Big Sky District vision is connecting downtown with the Montana State University campus. MSUB has great potential. Chancellor Dan Edelman has made numerous changes in his first seven months on the job. The new year ought to show some results of those changes.

Higher education

The major problem facing MSUB has been long decline in student enrollment. To reverse that trend, the university will need to step up recruiting in Eastern Montana and in Billings where more than 1,000 high schoolers graduate every year.

A Billings Public School survey of its class of 2018 found only 78 grads who had enrolled in any two-year college. MSUB’s City College alone ought to be enrolling twice that number. Montana high school grads are much less likely than their peers around the country to enroll in two-year colleges. It’s a pity because two-year colleges are less expensive and can help train teens for well-paying jobs in as little as a few months. Earning basic education credits at City College can also save money for students who plan to transfer to a four-year university to complete a higher degree.

With an aging population and a shortage of various health care professionals throughout Montana (and much of the nation), MSUB should aggressively pursue opportunities for new or expanded programs to meet demand. The MSUB nursing program that allows associate degree RNs to complete a bachelor of nursing degree (without leaving their jobs) has been successful in its first year. But there is a need for more nurses and more technicians with specialized health care skills.

Rocky Mountain College is commended for starting up an occupational therapy program that will confer doctoral degrees. The need for occupational therapy is growing and RMC was able to build its program with impressive speed and locate it in the college’s new science building.

MSUB’s long awaited Yellowstone Science Building is scheduled to be under construction this spring. That should create pride and excitement for students and university supporters. But a new building alone won’t bring more students or produce more grads. Under Edelman’s leadership, MSUB must reach out to the community, seek and follow wise advice from people who understand Billings and Montana’s needs.

Renew Medicaid

We call on the 2019 Legislature to remove the sunset clause on Montana Medicaid expansion. Without action by the Legislature and Gov. Steve Bullock, who supports renewal, the program covering about 96,000 impoverished adults will expire on June 30.

Without this Medicaid program, low-wage workers won’t have access to health care. Without this program, thousands of Native American residents will lose year-round access to needed care. With no expansion program, Montanans on probation and parole would lose access to treatment for the meth and opioid addictions that got them in trouble with the law. Thousands of low-income mentally ill folks would lose access to the counseling and medications that keep them healthy outside of hospitals.

Reduce suicide

Access to mental health care is a life or death matter. In the state with the nation’s highest rate of suicide, access to effective mental health care is vital to reducing the toll.

With no Montana Medicaid expansion, nearly four out of 10 women giving birth in Montana would have no health coverage – except during pregnancy. Before Medicaid expansion, most impoverished women of childbearing age were eligible for Medicaid only if they were pregnant or disabled.

Many of the homeless men and women we see on the streets of Billings have mental illnesses, chemical dependencies or both types of disorders. Montana needs Medicaid to get them off the streets, back to health and productive lives.

Prevent homelessness

To curtail homelessness, Billings and other Montana communities need more affordable housing. The majority of Montana families cannot afford the average-price home in their community. Many working families are priced out of the market for safe, decent housing – unless there is a public subsidy. Many Montana families are paying so much of their income in rent that they cannot afford to buy groceries.

We call on the Montana Legislature to ease the housing crunch by approving proposals from the Interim Local Government Committee to encourage construction of more housing that average Montanans can afford to rent.

Finally, on this cold January morning, we are thinking about getting outdoors. When Billings surveyed residents about what they want for parks and recreation, trails topped the list. Montana State Parks also found that trails were the No. 1 choice when Montanans were surveyed.

Trails for all ages

Well-planned, well-maintained bike/pedestrian trails bring people of all ages together. Trails boost property values because people want to live near safe trails. Runners, cyclists, dog walkers, strollers all enjoy trails.

Most trails in Billings were built primarily with federal funds, but that stream of dollars has dried up. So far, there is no state or local replacement. The city of Billings and TrailNet, a local nonprofit that raises money and volunteers for trails, are working on a proposal that could create a funding stream. The idea is to allow a $2 per month assessment on city utility bills and to allow customers to opt out. That way, only people who want to support trails will pay for them. We call on the Billings City Council to move forward with this plan in early 2019 and give the residents who said they want trails the opportunity to fulfill their wish.

That’s our community agenda, our hopes for community betterment in 2019. Let us know what you think and what your priorities are. The Voice of the Reader is a forum for Gazette readers to speak their minds and we welcome your opinions.

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