There is a wide array of issues facing Billings and the market region that draws upon Billings. Many of these needs have become pressing, immediate needs because the council has failed to address them in a timely fashion. The most obvious right now is public safety.
Before I get into high level details on specific issues, I would like to make two things clear.
First, policy is about effecting systems. There is rarely a single much less a best answer to how to get the best or a desired result out of a system. Systems are complicated. There are multiple points of entry and multiple ways to looking at the system. For example, I’ve uploaded a graphic of a water cycle as it works here on Earth. Global warming is being caused by heat being trapped in the atmosphere increasing, among other factors, the amount of water evaporating into the atmosphere and the amount of water stored in ice and snow.
Effecting change in a system is both simple and hard. It is simple to change a system. What is difficult is effecting a specific change aimed at a specific outcome. This requires thought, planning, and research.
Take crime as an example. We have been effecting change in the crime system here in Billings by spending the same amount of money or a little less every year while the needs of the public safety system grew because of growth in the physical size of the city of Billings and in the population of Billings. The COPS program since the 1990s has had a direct effect on the number of patrol officers on the streets and what they are doing. A jail filled beyond capacity impacts the courts abilities to keep violent offenders off the streets. A drug treatment program that only has room for people of a certain faith limits options.
These systems are complex, impacted on many levels in many ways. This increased the need for data. For picking outcomes and finding ways to measure the impact.
The second point I want to make is about outcomes. Policy is about defining goals, linking these goals to outcomes, and then defining changes that bring about those outcomes. This is a process. It is one that has been used by government in the past and by the business world very effectively for generations now. This means we have to give up our pet theories and do a real analysis of our problems. It also implicitly means that we never get it totally right the first time and need to be constantly tweaking the system. Successful businesses do this without even thinking about it these days. It is a part of the culture. We need to bring back this can do, let’s focus on outcomes and fix our problems attitude.
There are a handful of issues that are tied together, which will all impact on the future of Billings. Trees, workforce, wages, housing, commute methods and times, feeling safe on the streets, feeling safe in our homes, clean air and safe water to drink, convenient shopping, nice parks and trails within walking or biking distance… the list of things we all would like to have in our daily lives is long when we itemize it, but can be expressed quick succinctly. We all want a great place to live and raise our children.
During this campaign, a few items have stood out. Public safety, parks and trails, and economic development. While these items are related, I am going to pull them apart for the time being since that is how we have been talking about them in this election cycle.
If you do a web search of the keywords “Billings”, “crime”, and “ranking”, you will see a results page where around five websites that rank cities by livability including Billings. All five of those sites will have a ranking for Billings on crime of either an “F” or Billings is ranked in the bottom 10% on crime for similar cities. This impacts daily life in Billings, but it also impacts the willingness of individuals, families, and businesses to move or even to consider moving here.
Parks and Trails
We live in a place surrounded by natural wonders and opportunities to get outside and do something fun. The potential for great local parks and a system of connecting trails is only limited by our imagination and by our willingness to pay.
This lack of a willingness to pay has defined public funding of the development of new parks and trails for over thirty years. The work currently going on at Centennial Park is the first time public funds have been used to develop a community park in Billings since Castle Rock Park was developed in 1982. That is almost 40 years in a city that has grown in both size and population in that time.
We need to find ways to fund not just the maintenance and operations of our parks and recreation centers, but the creation and development of new ones.
I definitely think that we need to look at the an opt-in/opt-out version of the franchise fee that was taken away last year. I would like to see these dollars go directly into capital improvement funds.
I also support the work that Billings Trailnet and Yellowstone River Parks Association has been doing. The public part of this partnership needs to step up and help the private side or it will take 20 years to finish the marathon loop.
Saying that someone supports something like the One Big Sky District or the Inner Belt Loop or the Lockwood Targeted Economic Development District is an easy thing to do. Everyone supports workforce development and higher quality jobs and wages.
The simple narrative since the 1980s has been that if we want economic development we need to cut taxes and reduce regulations because the problem is too much government. While the appropriate tax structure and regulation environment is an important aspect of economic development, so is investing in our future.
A quality workforce means a quality education and a high quality of life. That means roads and parks and schools. The business world is totally different today than it was in the 1950s because of networked computers. The research and a lot of the development that created the webbed economy which we take for granted today came from government research grants and projects forty to sixty years ago. Without that investment, our lives would be far less digital and our economy far more manual.
Setting priorities is also very important. Specially when we have limited resources and can only build a few things at a time. Again, a dedicated revenue stream would help.