2021 Livability and Accessibility Forum
Billings City Council Candidate Responses
All candidates for Billings City Council and Mayor were invited to participate in a Livability and Accessibility Forum on either July 9th or 16th, 2021 at the Billings Public Library. This forum, organized by Billings TrailNet, Healthy By Design, Living Independently For Today and Tomorrow, and broadcast by Community 7 Television, was an informational discussion of livability and accessibility issues in Billings and does not serve as a formal endorsement of any candidates. Recordings of these forums are available on Community 7 Television. Candidates were also given the opportunity to submit responses in writing to each of the following questions.
Q1. According to a national survey by the AARP, 8 in 10 people surveyed prefer living in a walkable community and 6 in 10 prefer places with easy, walkable access to destinations. How important is walking, biking, rolling, and public transportation to Billings’ quality of life and economic vitality?
Ed Gulick – I believe opportunities for active transportation and accessibility are critical to the economic well-being and health of our community. Walking, biking, and a high level of public transit are better for EVERYONE: kids and their health and independence ; parents; older adults and their health, independence, and connection to the community; those unable to drive because of a disability; those who do drive because there’s less congestion on streets when there’s been a mode shift; property taxpayers who don’t have to pay for an expensive road infrastructure for high volumes of car traffic; (and) people experiencing poverty who will now have funds for quality food, rent, and healthcare instead being FORCED to support a car to have a job . But this needs to be a discussion about more than our transportation systems. We need to have the right kind of development patterns that support a mix of modes. Surveys of Billings residents have frequently support infill development rather continuing to sprawl outward. And I firmly believe that infill development that is built out as higher density, mixed use walkable districts will do the most to benefit all our residents. And we won’t be starting from scratch; we’ve been building some of rungs on this ladder to prosperity, which I can get into later. These walkable districts are the key to fully becoming a high performance city, delivering excellent economic, health, and environmental performance and creating a more equitable and friendly community.
Stephanie Krueger – It is essential, exercise is essential to helping our community, you know, have healthy citizens. It increases the longevity of our lives decreases depression and it also increases our connection with nature and with our neighbors.
Jennifer Owen – Multi-modal transit is a part of any thriving community. Offering citizens choices in the way they move through Billings is an important goal and part of comprehensive economic development. I would caution against over-reliance on national surveys, however. Walkability in large, coastal cities has a different impact than it does for many people in more spacious communities. I would hope to see more localized data gathering over time to inform City Council decision making.
Denise Joy – Active transportation is really important, but it’s not just about health. It’s getting to where we need to be. So it isn’t just about whether or not we are attracting young people, but it’s also about our aging population and their access to destinations that they would like to get to.
Charlie Loveridge – My priorities is to make Billings a place people want to stay and live in a town that our businesses, hospitals, corridors, schools and the like can attract new wonderful young talent. It promotes healthy lifestyle help support Billings’ economic growth.
Mary Hernandez – Accessibility for all persons is crucial for achieving and maintaining quality of life and economic vitality. From seniors to young families, good health and a sense of community is enhanced when we have access to life’s needs and amenities within walking distance.
Daniel Tidswell – I believe it’s vitally important that we continue to build maintain and secure all of these avenues of travel for the billings (area).
Tim Warburton – Having a walkable community is so important to the people who live here, even if they aren’t necessarily familiar with the different groups in the city that help promote these ideas. I imagine most people take their dog for a walk or go for a jog and don’t think much about the cost of the infrastructure, how or why it got there, but are just glad it’s there so they can enjoy. There aren’t many places one can go in Ward 4 without seeing somebody out biking, walking, running, etc., so clearly Ward 4 loves being outside. Our trails in the subdivision I live in, Copper Ridge, and Falcon Ridge next to us, is connected with wonderful walking trails that are usually full of people and pets. These trails promote so many things, from physical and mental health benefits, meeting neighbors, and improving everybody’s quality of life. When thinking about economic vitality, Montana residents love to recreate, and many visitors and people moving here are moving here because of the outdoor recreational opportunities widely available in our community. If there are two communities with all things even except one has a robust trails system, promotes biking opportunities and encourages this with bike lanes, and can provide a reliable public transit system, I think the choice becomes obvious. The need for a community to have safe places to socially connect is key in a community when building community and personal resilience. Almost every category of the 13 areas of opportunity identified in the most recent Community Health Needs Assessment can be improved simply by walking, showing the obvious need for our community to have this civic infrastructure in place to improve health which increases quality of life.
Tom Rupsis – A walkable community is very important to my personal quality of life. My house in Ward 5 is just off Shiloh Road, and our family uses the trail along Shiloh almost daily. The few times we’ve thought about moving neighborhoods over the years, the proximity to that trail has really affected our thinking about where we might be willing to even look at houses. Public transportation is not something we personally use here in Billings, although I recognize that it is as critical to some people’s quality of life as the trail system is to my family. And that is something that I believe is important for prospective Councilmembers. I may not personally use something, but I understand the importance of building a city that considers the resources people want and need. Most of Billings was built at times when people’s expectations were different. Looking forward, we need to understand the changing landscape so that Billings can remain an attractive place to live and work. This encompasses much more than walkability, and I believe our economic future depends on it.
Dennis Ulvestad – I think we have a little bit to go to get the complete loop but to ride the trails, gives you a different perspective and it gives you a great perspective. We have one of the most beautiful cities here. I would just want to let you know that trails is a new quality of life for people because it will change your quality of life.
Bill Cole – More than just the function, people are also realizing that even if they’re not on that trail using it, they like the look of it. It really changes that tone and the atmosphere of a community for the better and just driving up and down trails. It makes me excited to see people using it. So those things are important to me.
Q2. Much of our current transportation infrastructure excludes people who cannot drive for reasons of age, ability, financial means, etc. As a city councilmember, what will you do to make sure that Billings accommodates the transportation needs (such as equitable access to employment, commerce, and services) of all residents?
Gulick (1) – I believe we can reprioritize where some of our existing transportation funds are spent, getting us closer to being a more equitable, high performance city. We need to think of our streets and transportation systems in a holistic manner. A transportation system that serves only one mode—cars and trucks—is actually the most expensive, inefficient system available. A multi-modal is far more cost-efficient and also delivers better human and environmental health, social equity, and better community interaction. Why does our community continually treat walking and bicycling infrastructure as an optional premium that adds cost to our transportation system? We think of it as being ADDITIONAL—that we would still need to construct the full buildout of automotive infrastructure in any case. To some degree, this IS true when you have low density sprawl development. Walking and even bicycling become recreational luxuries rather than a preferable means of getting around, of going to work or school or shopping. You can have all the sidewalks in the world, if there are no destinations within a 5-10 walk, people won’t walk. When we combine good development practices with investments in walking, rolling, and bicycle infrastructure, we will absolutely see a mode shift. There will be fewer cars on the road. We won’t have to pay for costly expansions of road infrastructure to accommodate an ever-increasing number of cars. I want to designate a percentage of our annual transportation budgets for walking, rolling, and biking infrastructure. Between our arterial fees and gas tax money, we have $22 million to work with in the current fiscal year. Our current walking mode percentage is 3-17% of trips, depending on if you only count commuting versus all trips. Our current biking mode percentage is 1-8%. This year we’re spending about $220,000 on bike infrastructure, which is 1% of our transportation budget. I’d like to double that. Similarly with walking infrastructure. Around the country, walking and biking follows well-designed infrastructure investment.
Kreuger (1) – I am meeting new people every day coming in to Billings and coming into Montana. And we really need to look at our public transportation system, we need to make sure that the public transportation is equitable.
Owen (2) – I believe that this is a much larger barrier than is currently understood by many policymakers. Particularly for low-income families, public transit options are rarely useful – the hours are limited, the buses don’t go where people need to go, and the timetables are too slow to support people who are trying to make multiple appointments in a single day. I think Council needs to bring people with lived experience to the table – people who lack personal transportation, people with mobility limitations – to help shape decision-making. I believe that Council often overlooks the input of people who are actually dealing with the consequences of local policy decisions, and I would like to do more as a Council Member to engage key stakeholders in evaluating options to improve transportation options.
Joy (3) – We have to support our transit. We can’t have affordable housing or housing that acts accessible to everyone in the city, if we have housing that is far enough out that we don’t provide met transit available to them. That transit is really important. It’s a federally sponsored program.
Loveridge (3) – Something that we need to look at as it is a viable option for the folks that need public transit. Maybe they don’t know about the app, maybe that’s something that we need to be better at marketing
Hernandez (4) – The US Census 2019 reports over 8% of Billings residents live with a disability and 10% of us live in poverty. The majority of us will experience a temporary disability in our lifetime. With this in mind, I am happy to work with agencies and organizations to seek solutions to keep all of us plugged into activities of choice. Having had a sister born with a physical disability and surviving a lived experience of poverty, I have spent my life acutely aware of the need for a comprehensive plan for transportation and access for all citizens. A successful plan increases quality of life and thriving community for all.
Warburton (4) – As a Licensed Addiction Counselor who previously worked in our city’s drug court program, I’ll also add that some people are unable to drive because of restrictions placed on them by society due to their actions. While I agree with these restrictions, it also is vital as a community that there are resources in place to help these people be successful in their recovery. We have a transit system that doesn’t run after 645pm, and only until 545pm on Saturday. There is no public transit available on Sunday. So, if you work until 8pm, or 10pm, or work on a Sunday, there is a real barrier if you rely on the public transportation system in Billings. I believe the city should extend the evening hours of at least a couple routes so there are some options, and should look to find a way to operate seven days a week. I would be willing to listen to recommendations from the Technical Advisory Committee that is tasked with providing technical advice to the Policy Coordinating Committee on transportation matters and technical direction to the staff of the Yellowstone County Board of Planning on transportation matters. To the question, I will be a champion of ensuring we have an equitable public transportation system.
Tidswell (4) – I believe the council needs to ascertain how the current infrastructure excludes anyone and we need to seek to fix those holes. We need to fill those holes at this exclusion areas.
Rupsis (5) – This is an area where I think the arrival of fully autonomous vehicles just can’t come fast enough. The ability to have cost-effective, on-demand, point-to-point transportation will be a significant advancement for people who now struggle with transportation. Until that day arrives, we will remain forced to balance the economic costs of public transportation services with the benefits of those services. The problem comes when we only see benefits through ridership counts. As a councilmember I’ll support policies that consider the intangible value that people get from public transportation such as personal independence and being able to support their family because they can get to a potential job. One relatively obvious thing I think can be improved is to build a better Trip Planner. We have an app to track where our buses are. But I can’t figure out how to get from Point A to Point B. The Trip Planner on the website just emails the MET Transit staff and they’ll get back to you in one business day. That’s doesn’t seem to be very useful if I’m out somewhere and my itinerary changes. I also hope that we’ve analyzed using more varied, more frequent routes using smaller vehicles. For today, I’m giving the city the benefit of the doubt that they’ve done this, but I sure hate seeing big empty buses driving around and it’s something I’d like to look into.
Ulvestad (5) – People have to do a little bit more research so we can get our people around town a lot faster and I think that we have to all get together.
Cole (Mayor) – We’ve come a long ways, but we still have a long ways to go. Start with enforcing what we’ve got now, which is our existing prime complete streets policy, safe routes to school, making sure the trails with sidewalks going on arterials and making sure that there’s adequate width in those sidewalks. If we can increase ridership that comes at almost no additional cost but it is way to generate more revenue. We have good app system where you can actually know where the where the bus is rather than guessing, but we can improve the technology in the transit system that relatively low cost.
Q3. Some would say no one uses trails or bike lanes and they cost too much money to build and maintain. How do you feel about that?
Gulick (1) – For 40 years, we invested in street infrastructure that was designed almost exclusively with vehicular traffic. And so, in concert with our sprawl development patterns, we squeezed out other modes and have been dependent on automotive means to get around. No wonder there’s not a big percentage of the population walking and biking. But to the City of Billings’ great credit, for the last 20 or so years, we’ve been slowly turning that around with complete streets. But it’s like turning around a battleship—it takes a while. And I want to jump onto the bridge and start turning that wheel a LOT harder. I am a small business owner. My lifeblood is highly educated workforce. In order to attract and retain a quality workforce, we need trails that connect us to place. We need bike lanes and trails that allow us lead healthy lives. Speaking as a business owner, I don’t think we can afford NOT to invest in building and maintaining trails and bike lanes. And again, I think we can do much of that within our existing transportation budgets.
Kreuger (1) – The city requires that they actually put in trails and they put in parks when they’re developing these neighborhoods. So that will help a lot with the trail that vision completing these trails. So we just need to make sure that it’s organic and that these new trails feed into these main trails. And but I do believe if we all work together, we can achieve it.
Owen (2) – Clearly, we saw during the COVID shutdowns that such a statement is untrue. In the Heights, trails along Wicks, Alkali Creek and other prime locations were heavily used. I would like to work more closely with trails advocates to see if there are City policies or procedures that drive up the cost of construction, and eliminate those barriers where possible. I think we have to be honest that budget constraints will exist for some period of time, and find ways to blend public and private funds to sustain community trails for the near future.
Joy (3) – Bike boulevards are not very expensive to put in a certain amount of striping on the street. Some way finding signs and some enhance crossings- those are expensive. So we want to reduce conflict between bicycles pedestrians and motorists. That’s part of the way that we encourage their use and we have higher levels of active transportation
Loveridge (3) – I believe that it’s an absolute attraction to a city. No question asked of it. These are the kinds of things that do bring people to our city and keep people staying in our city, I do believe that they are expensive, the hard part, of course, is maintaining.
Hernandez (4) – I believe trails and bike lanes increases the quality of life (health, connectivity, play, etc.) and investments are worth that. It does takes ongoing effective messaging from interested leaders (City and community organizations) to increase advocacy, and maintain support from citizens.
Warburton (4) – I would say I feel contrarian to that sentiment. I would also note that the “some” who say that probably aren’t very aware of all the people currently who use trails and bike lanes, which obviously poses a danger. I am positive on almost any given day, 365 days a year, you can find somebody walking, running, or biking (and usually all three) on Rimrock road. Why? There is a bike lane, some areas of the sidewalk the further west you go are large enough to accommodate multiple people on the path. This is a classic case of “if you build it, they will come” and I imagine if the city had more bike lanes that people could feel safe on, we’d see even more people biking to recreate and as a primary mode of transportation in their daily lives.
Tidswell (4) – The costs are always going to be there and the maintenance costs are always going to be there. I think what we need to do is focus and try to find ways to offset these costs. They’re never going to go away. They’re always going to increase. Whether that be reallocating funds or increase the fund raising or even increasing volunteerism. I think those are things that we have to look at maybe possibly developing a citywide vote with your program to take care of the things.
Rupsis (5) – I think roads cost too much money to build and maintain, but we’re obviously not going to stop building and maintaining our roads. To me, it comes down to the realization that we don’t build roads for cars; we build roads for transportation. On any day in Billings, you can find roads being used by semi-trucks, emergency responders, personal vehicles, bikes, pedestrians, and farm equipment. I’ve even seen people on horses, and I recall a story about a moose walking down 6th Ave N. Not every road needs to support all kinds of transportation, but we need to continue implementing our comprehensive approach to transportation infrastructure.
Ulvestad (5) – Whoever is the negative person. Actually, you show them. You show the trails you from the buses and engage them because once you engage in person with you about why we need these trails and bikes this way, they will feel like they are involved with the city and they were part of it, whether the part of the solution or the problem
Cole (Mayor) – We just need that data. I don’t know what the results are. It could be that trail and pedestrian walkways are very expensive. I don’t know, maybe they’re a 3rd substantially cheaper. But even if they’re expensive, there’s an equity issue. There’s a quality of life issue. But if we have that data, we can just make those choices more clearly.
Q4. Actively commuting to school improves students’ physical and mental health, cognitive development, and academic performance, and saves transportation costs. In 2020, City Council identified safe routes to schools as a top 10 priority. If elected, how will you improve safe walking, biking and rolling?
Gulick (1) – Yes, absolutely. Please see my response in #3.
Kreuger (1) – We all want our kids to be able to walk to school and ride their bikes and have safe routes. It’s really imperative and it gives them a sense of independents as well. And at the elementary level it seems like we do have fairly safe routes and we have cross guards. But then once you get to the middle school and the high school level, it gets a bit more precarious. I think we really need to work with our parents and also with all of our school boards around the area to make sure that we have safe routes and that our kids can walk and ride their bikes to school.
Owen (2) – I think it is appropriate to include Safe Routes to Schools as a top priority. However, I am not convinced that all of the designated routes are particularly safe. City Council should work more closely with School District 2 in planning, particularly when approving new developments or considering new annexations. Right now, Council looks at whether a new development will overcrowd schools and whether that development will increase traffic to unsustainable levels. But at no point do City Commissions or the City Council assess whether children in new developments have a safe way to get to school. This is a simple fix that Council could adopt immediately to demonstrate the Safe Routes to Schools are actually a priority. If elected to Council, I will work to improve our planning processes so that they are aligned with desired outcomes.
Joy (3) – We’re expecting kids at Middle school to accept this message of where to cross and doing it right. And when do we do that with motorist- messages to motorists to slow down, keep your eyes open and especially slow down because we know that at the speed of 35 miles an hour, you’re survivability from an accident deeply decreases.
Loveridge (3) – It just makes sense going forward. We don’t want to have any kids get run over, if in fact we get those safe, those safe routes for our schools. I do believe that we could affectively diminish the possibilities of any nefarious activities as well as kids getting run over.
Hernandez (4) – I support the efforts of all who have worked to establish safe routes as a priority. I would continue advocating and voting to support safe routes.
Warburton (4) – I will be supportive of all the safe route to school identified that need to be installed, and in general, believe that a community that can safely transport by walking, biking, rolling is crucial to the quality of life so many desire.
Tidswell (4) – We really need update that we need community input. We need to figure out where to direct our focus. What processes need to be addressed now to move forward in that plan and maybe we proceed with an alternate plan or different focus.
Rupsis (5) – I think we need to set the expectation that if you live or own property in Billings that doesn’t already have a sidewalk, and your property is preventing a child from having a safe walk to school, you should expect to have that sidewalk completed over the next 5-10 years. One of my personal pet peeves is sidewalk that stops and starts. A couple years ago the city rebuilt Central Ave. They also built the last 300 feet of road to connect 36th St W to Central but did not build the sidewalk. So now there’s sidewalk along the entirety of 36th St W with the exception of that last 300 feet. I think we need to consider a policy that encourages complete sidewalks even before properties are developed. The payment for that walk can be deferred until the property is completed. But to me it makes no sense for someone to walk in the road because there’s an empty lot between a neighborhood and a major arterial street.
Ulvestad (5) – Have a traffic study, and go step to step going into a study of the traffic this school hours… this would be much better and we would have to look at that before we go to our next step because our priority is the safety of our kids.
Cole (Mayor) – Just have a lot of conversation with people. We need a way to get people safely from the Heights into the downtown, just having those individual conversations and pressing forward.
Q5. Currently there is no reliable federal, state, or local funding source dedicated to trails or safe routes to schools. Instead, Billings often relies on unpredictable sources such as grants to make projects happen. Would you be open and supportive of developing funding for trails and safe routes? Do you have any ideas and how to do that?
Gulick (1) – As I mentioned in #3, I think we need a percentage of our annual transportation funds dedicated to active and rolling transportation. Trails are an interesting case. They’re often viewed purely as a recreational amenity, but I use them a fair bit when I’m biking around the outer regions of our city to get to shops or jobsites. Where do they fit in terms of maintenance and budgets in terms of our city departments: public works or parks? It’s some of both. With the recent action of the legislature that means our Parks District will have to go to a vote in the next couple of years, I’m interested in also figuring out how capital projects might fit into such a vote. I’d like to include a big chunk of the Marathon Loop in a bond that is paid off over a 10 year or more period.
Kreuger (1) – We are going to have to look at all different avenues, property taxes go up incredibly so we just have to be aware of that. We’re trying to, you know, spend more money, more taxpayers’ money. But I do believe we can.
Owen (2) – There have been recent debates regarding assessing a trails fee on City water bills, for example. Advocates have discussed an opt-out fee, whereby everyone would be assessed a fee unless they proactively opted-out. I do not support this approach. I would support an opt-in, where people could choose to pay an extra $1 or $2 on their water bills if they wished. But I would not support unknowingly increasing fees on the community.
Joy (3) – All of you get to decide whether or not this is a priority. This is not council telling. You should be a priority. You actually deciding that and the same way if it were a dedicated donation on your water bill, you would be able to decide that. And then we as council would know that is a priority.
Loveridge (3) – Telling them that they’re going to pay more in taxes. That’s a tough pill to swallow getting them. I think getting them to vote for and support. It would be difficult as well. Look at how we can develop more private /public partnerships and look to realign budget resources that might be being wasted on programs that have lived their usefulness for various reasons.
Hernandez (4) – I believe we can leverage the strengths of our 3 sectors–public, private, and not-for-profit–to be innovative in obtaining funding. One thought would be to explore how we can assure the public of fundraising for a project via all sectors while placing maintenance funds in a 501(c)3 Foundation donor designated maintenance fund so the funds are not diverted to other needs. We could use the expertise of our City’s Information Officer to assist in creating an effective education campaign.
Warburton (4) – This is a question the Parks Board has directly been trying to during at least my four years on the Board. Obviously, there are no great answers or this would be done by now. I’m absolutely supportive of having a dedicated funding source for trails and safe routes, and believe it falls on the city to provide that basic infrastructure to its residents. We shouldn’t have to rely on non-profits or small neighborhoods to rally together to get a sidewalk done so kids can walk safely to school, and a new parent can take their newborn for a stroll and not have to go into the street. The city collects tax dollars and needs to be held responsible for reinvesting those funds back into the community.
Tidswell (4) – We need a laser focus on all current and an alternate sources of funding private nonprofit, public, local, state, federal- we need to continue to grow that fundraising in volunteer base. I think that’s the only way to fight this and keep it keep it moving forward.
Rupsis (5) – This is something I’ve been involved with for several years. There are lots of ways that trails and Safe Routes are built. Some are sidewalks in existing neighborhoods, some are multi-use paths in the city right-of-way, and others might be dedicated trails like the Big Ditch and Jim Dutcher trails. They each require their own approach. I was pleased to see the city increase support for finishing sidewalks in this year’s budget, and I appreciate the Complete Streets approach that goes with any rebuilding or updating of roads. For dedicated trails, I and the Parks Board put a plan in front of Council this year that included trails like the Stagecoach Trail and the Canyon Creek Trail as part of a parks and trails bond issue. I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to move that onto the ballot in 2022.
Ulvestad (5) – Working together in collaboration, I believe that we should use all the funding we can get.
Cole (Mayor) – It confirms the need and the desire and reduces the cost for the taxpayer. Similarly we need to work harder at getting those federal dollars. We do have to have a way to match those private dollars with public dollars and that’s the difficult challenge.
Q6. City Council has adopted several plans, including the Billings Area Bikeway and Trails Master Plan; Billings Growth Policy; Billings Parks and Recreation Master Plan; and the City Council’s Annual Priorities List. These plans help our city be competitive for funding opportunities and help reach our city’s goals. As a City Councilmember, how would you support moving forward with the plans that have been adopted by prior Councils?
Gulick (1) – These are great plans, very helpful. We don’t need to invent the wheel—much of the work has already been done. Some of the older plans may require some minor adjustments or reprioritization, but I’m fundamentally support moving forward with them. So, for the most part, I’m really focused on the implementation of the plans.
Kreuger (1) – We have to realize that we may have to adopt some of these plans. But we all should read these plans and make sure, they still apply. Let’s go ahead and work to complete and honor those people in the work that they’ve done. And if they don’t, let’s go ahead and adjust them so that they work for this growing city.
Owen (2) – We need to do more to have these plans speak to each other – major planning documents like these should better reflect the findings of other plans and reports. In addition, if elected to Council, I will recommend periodically revisiting these studies – at least quarterly – to evaluate progress toward achieving the priorities identified in major planning documents. Each of these documents should be regularly incorporated into Council decision-making, and revisited to ensure we remain on track.
Joy (3) – The priorities that are set by the council are very important and they should continue on. The Billings growth policy is referenced every single time that we have a zone change; any part of the planning or part of our growth policy. They have to be interpreted in terms of how we use them in our planning. We need to have those areas planned and make them fit with our growth policy, make them fit with our bikeway and paths and trails policies.
Loveridge (3) – Help encourage grants, public/ private partnerships, support fund raising for these projects. I think they’re worth that effort working on, I would do everything I could do to help them pursue their goals and help us with these paths; we need to be able to have proper priorities.
Hernandez (4) – I would continue supporting the plans and using my experience in working with our County Commissioners, state legislators and U.S. representatives to advocate for funding as opportunities arise and in general conversations which occur through the year.
Warburton (4) – I value the time and effort many people, from city staff, Councilmembers, members of the public, and people who sit on city boards and various task forces/groups across the city, put into creating these priorities and vetting them. I think as an incoming Councilmember I will appreciate not having to reinvent the wheel, so to say, but ensure the plans and projects our community has deemed needed and worthy are given the resources they need to be successful and completed. The wheels of change move slow at times, and I think when it comes to taxpayer money, while frustrating, that can be an ok part of the process. Our resources are limited, and we should be wise with where we spend and how. We need to continue to complete these plans as we are able, while also preparing for the future and what the future needs will be. I believe I am the best candidate in Ward 4 to achieve this.
Tidswell (4) – There is no shortage of plans, we just need to work those plans, into sort of a cliff notes. It would go a long way towards community understanding and hopefully community involvement in these plans. Show me the measurements so we can celebrate our successes, have some accountability. We have got to get community on board and we have got to move forward with these plans.
Rupsis (5) – We have no shortage of plans. Where we’ve struggled in the past is the ability to convert a plan into action. From my experience on the Parks Board, it has been extremely frustrating to watch the Department develop park master plans and seek Council’s approval for them without including any strategy for moving forward with the plan. As a councilmember, I will support the implementation of existing plans. Unless something has fundamentally changed, I do not support wasting taxpayer money or Council and staff time to revisit and re-debate every plan approved by prior Councils. I will expect departments to convert plans into actionable steps and put forward appropriate resource requests. I will also favor those requests that have well thought out measures of transparency and accountability so we can be sure that taxpayer monies are well managed.
Ulvestad (5) – Educate the people; we have to work all together. And one thing on Council I would do is it to keep the public informed as they have stated before on what Council can do and what they cannot do because they are limited.
Cole (Mayor) – Enforce what’s already there. That’s the starting point, but also trying to help the public and groups like TrailNet and other organizations broaden the base of public support so that the more people can communicate with city staff, with City Council members, County commissioners to get the message across and what’s important to them, with the pages that are the most significant from their perspective. Consolidate them into a booklet and get that out and get people to read that a cliff notes version. I think that would be very, very helpful having public meetings to make sure that those key points are communicated each year, especially for new council members because otherwise it’s just a very daunting task.
Q7. Progress for our community depends on working with other governmental jurisdictions, including the county commissioners. How would you promote a collaborative relationship with the County?
Gulick (1) – We need to develop friendly, working relationships (and) identify areas of common interest. Our tax base is of mutual interest. More than half of our property taxes collected within city limits go to county budgets. The superior financial performance of walkable districts should be of interest to them. We need to show the math. What’s good for the city’s tax base is good for the county’s tax base. The high performance development doesn’t occur if we make the wrong infrastructure and land development decisions in our county. We should probably have small groups of councilmembers meeting with commissioners monthly on a semi-informal basis (on top of all of the other meetings and obligations of being a good CM!). I would also gently remind county commissioners that the overwhelming number of their constituents live in city limits. Again, what is good for the city’s livability and tax base is good for the county tax base.
Kreuger (1) – Just keep those lines of communication open, try to stay positive and work together to achieve these things we want to achieve.
Owen (2) – There is no magic to collaborative relationships. Local elected officials need to spend time together, discussing mutual priorities and working toward shared goals. At a staff level, there are various city-county committees that work well together. The persons involved meet regularly and focus on common ground. There is no reason that Council and the County Commission can’t do the same – meet regularly, identify shared goals, and work toward them. Those dialogues should also include School Districts and State Legislators.
Joy (3) – There are issues we work through them, and how best we can collaborate with them.
Loveridge (3) – I work closely with the commissioners meeting frequently. Get in there. Take advice on different aspects. Better bridges between the city and county is working together right now. Bad business not to work together.
Hernandez (4) – As a City Councilwoman, I would stay apprised of issues on their agendas. I am accustomed to meeting individually leaders to determine common interests, discuss differences and determine how we can work together. Developing good working and trusting relationships is key to advancing understanding and the work on behalf of our citizens.
Warburton (4) – The biggest difference in how the city and county govern is the City Council is a part-time job while the County Commissioners are full-time. This is obviously reflected in the salary difference of each role. I would be more than happy to sit down with any of the Commissioners to address local issues, and would suggest frequent communication and brainstorming of the issues. I think the important thing for me is that, as a Councilmember, and everybody else who is a citizen of Billings, we pay somebody to represent us and lead our city, and we pay them well. I have the utmost faith in City Administrator Chris Kukulski and his team to also promote a collaborative relationship with county officials, and would be comfortable knowing if Chris needed more from a Councilmember, he would ask, and if he felt a call or letter from me would be helpful, I would get it done.
Tidswell (4) – Collaborative relationships, people do business with people they like. Why was there no collaboration? Was there an issue with collaboration with the county? Then I want to see to it work together and fix these things. It all comes down to meeting halfway with them.
Rupsis (5) – This is probably the toughest question, because there doesn’t seem to be any real clear answer. I have heard from so many people that the relationship between City and County needs to be improved, but nobody knows how. In situations like this, I think the best course is generosity. What can we in Billings do to help the rest of the county? We certainly recognize that the success of Laurel, Lockwood, Shepherd, Huntley, Broadview, and Custer ultimately benefits Billings. We should do everything we can to make sure that nobody can ever say that Billings just takes from the county in the pursuit of our own interests. Or, even worse, that we create problems for the rest of the county. I think if we act this way consistently over time then the relationship can improve.
Ulvestad (5) – Be nice to everyone because that does really make a difference, diplomacy is a major factor.
Cole (Mayor) – Maintain good personal relationships or professional relationships with the commissioners and with County staff. So you can do that by just attending their meetings meeting with them. Informally, not going out of your way to slam them publicly, it wasn’t easy and we had to make some compromises there.
Q8. As a City Councilmember, you are asked to make decisions about a variety of resources and topics that you may not be familiar with. How do you plan to engage stakeholders and community partners in understanding the issues you are presented?
Gulick (1) – I want to understand the ‘why’ behind any proposed action or decision. (It is) best to hear from the public that are most directly impacted and discuss with relevant residents, businesses, organizations, and city staff, but also important to keep the interests of the whole community in mind—the greater good is very important to me. (It is) helpful to actually visit the parts of the community that are to be affected to understand the context.
Kreuger (1) – I’ve been going to all different kinds of community gatherings/ task force meetings. Everything I can invited to or can crash so that I can learn more about what issues are really affecting all of us.
Owen (2) – Public engagement is a proactive process. When issues are before Council for decision, Council Members need to actively reach out to affected individuals in their Wards and invite input. I think we rely too much on procedural “public hearings,” which are sparsely attended, and not enough on proactively inviting stakeholders to the table. I have substantial background in community engagement and public policy development, and I look forward to the opportunity, if elected, to focus on truly engaging the community in critical decisions. Council also needs to take some responsibility for lengthy meetings that discourage public participation. Routinely holding 5-6 hour meetings is certain to alienate the community. We need better agenda management and more opportunities for public input.
Joy (3) – Prioritizing task force, every town meetings, whatever is available, you’ll be there and you will be overwhelmed with possibilities for meetings. It’s all very, very important.
Loveridge (3) – As council member, I plan to be completely accessible and transparent with city business. I welcome all meetings, will be very open with both opponents and proponents of any business within the city. Open dialogue helps bring groups together and consensus and will help build and supply a better vision for Billings.
Hernandez (4) – I am, by nature, a curious person. I seek as much information as I can. I’m a problem solver, realist, decent listener, and am willing to consider additional information. I ask myself in my everyday endeavors who I’ve missed in seeking the best information in making important decisions. I am experienced in bringing people together and facilitating conversations with conflicting opinions. I seek to find common interests and the best outcome for all. I will develop a website to keep citizens apprised of issues before the City Council and my thoughts on the issues. I will avail myself via emails, calls and text/website messages to address citizens’ concerns. I am a fan of community conversations and will utilize at least quarterly. I will be a regular attendee at area Task Force meetings in Ward 4. At any point I’m happy to provide my current thoughts.
Warburton (4) – This might be my favorite question, as I believe there are so many resources and topics that people care about that it would be nearly impossible to be an expert on all of them. I think about my approach when I started on the Parks Board. I knew going in I wasn’t an expert, in fact far from it, on many things related to park planning and park maintenance. I was very deliberate my first year in trying to listen much more than I talked, so I could get much more familiar with the issues. As a social worker, I’m naturally curious, and part of the work is getting to know and understand people and who they are and what they care about. I will maintain this approach as a Councilmember when topics come before me that I’m not familiar with, and will trust the people who have a passion for whatever the topic may be to educate me on the things most important for me to know to make the best decision. Part of being a good listener is asking the right questions, and I think I have the skill set to listen well and ask the questions that help me make informed decisions.
Tidswell (4) – Focused on getting input from constituents, stakeholders and community partners to better understand the wants and needs. It would give me an opportunity to define processes that up roster the roles. Listen to what people want done and then define that process.
Rupsis (5) – There are lots of ways to approach a campaign for Council. For me, this campaign has been all about educating myself on the issues we’re facing. I’ve spoken with friends and neighbors, business leaders, religious leaders, folks in economic development and social services, political leaders, and current and former employees of our city government. As much as I’ve learned, I feel like I have more to learn than when I started! If I am elected, I imagine my approach will be more of the same. Approach anyone and everyone with knowledge and experience to share and humbly ask to be educated.
Q9. Many communities smaller than ours have an ADA Coordinator on staff whose primary duty is supporting ADA compliance for residents. Do you think this would be beneficial for the Billings community? Why or why not?
Gulick (1) – (It) sounds like a good idea to have a dedicated point person, who’s entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring we move forward with deliberation to create a more equitable, accessible community. (This person could be a) liaison to organizations like LIFTT, arrange for city decision makers—CM and staff—to attend various audit demonstrations around town so the issues are better understood and internalized. (I am) interested to find out how the current work is apportioned among city staff … and to see the job description from some other communities.
Kreuger (1) – I have complete faith in the city and the administrators and that they will figure this out without creating another position.
Owen (2) – When I listen to Council discussion, I often hear ADA issues being considered – building accessibility, sidewalk width, etc. If we can identify someone within the existing City infrastructure who is appropriate to take on this role and strengthen Council deliberations in this aspect, that seems like a reasonable priority. However, in the current budget climate, I would not support adding City employees.
Joy (3) – I do think it would be beneficial, the issue that comes up when we see those problems is how do we fix it. It always comes down to funding because that’s just how it works. But having someone actually look at those areas, help us to prioritize, so the council has many areas where we receive advice from not only staff but from our volunteer boards and commissions and having staff members dedicated to working on issues allows us to clearly defined the issue to collect data and to use that data to help us to make decisions.
Loveridge (3) – Our city’s bureaucracy is not a path I want to encourage.
Hernandez (4) – Certainly, an ADA Coordinator would be beneficial to our community. At minimum, we could ensure the City staff member responsible to answer compliance. At best, we’d add a staff position to the Planning or Code Enforcement Department to work with citizens. The Planning Dept. can provide proactive assistance; Code Enforcement would address situations where ADA compliance has failed our citizens. I recognize older buildings and development may be challenged by maintenance costs of necessary ADA improvements yet studies have proven that these improvements benefit young families using strollers, individuals with temporary disabilities (of which the majority of us will encounter in our lifetime), and those walking safely or making deliveries to households and businesses.
Warburton (4) – I believe the city staff already do a good job looking for ways to ensure are community is not only ADA compliant, but friendly. If you look at recent park installation at Ponderosa Park that put in new play structures that were inclusive for all kids, as well as the pathway from the street to the park now being ADA compliant. We also have Landon’s Legacy, which I’ve supported during my time on the Parks Board and still support, an all-inclusive playground that will be coming to Poly Vista Park here in the near future. I’ve appreciated the staff having a wide view of this, and not just focusing on people that have a physical disability, but also those who have cognitive, sensory, and other forms of disability. Recent sidewalk installation in the Heights, despite objections from Heights Councilmembers and a current Councilmember from Ward 4, were installed to be complaint with ADA regulations because the city staff refused to submit anything less. The city staff should be commended for ensuring these projects meet ADA regulations. So, while I don’t see the need for somebody specifically to be hired for this role because the staff already seem to be doing well, if staff recommended this position and felt it appropriate, I could see myself being supportive of have an ADA Coordinator on city staff.
Tidswell (4) – If you could give examples of how an ADA compliance coordinator can increase effectiveness and ensure compliance is above and beyond those of the Federal ADA compliances, I’ll look at the addition and then ask you to help me search for our already crowded budget to pay that salary.
Rupsis (5) – Billings has a long history of not providing social services directly from the city government. Title II of the ADA actually requires each city of 50 or more employees to name at least one person as the city’s compliance coordinator. I can’t find any reference to this person on the city’s website other than a generic ADA/Section 504 Coordinator on the MET Transit site. At the very least, this should probably be reviewed to see if the city is meeting the ADA requirements. I think that role should probably exist in the current Planning and Community Services Development department. I think it’s also worthy of consideration whether an ADA advisory board might be useful. That’s the approach Butte took, and I have no problem stealing ideas from other cities.
We thank Melissa from Healthy by Design, Jed from LIFTT and Roberta, Tim and Lindsey from Community 7, and all others for their role in making this forum a success.
Another big thanks to the City Council candidates who took the time to prepare for and attend this forum; and their commitment to serving our community on City Council! We appreciate you all!
To view the videos of the two panel sessions please click on the buttons below
City Council elections will be held Tuesday, November 2, 2021.
Close of Regular Voter Registration: Monday, October 4th at 5:00 PM
Start of Late Voter Registration (In Person Only): Tuesday, October 5th
Absentee Ballots Mailed: October 13th