Commissioner Haladay recently asked Helenans to continue building on the successes of the current Helena City Commission through his re-election. Voters might think twice because there are significant cracks in the foundation on which he would like you to continue building. For example, he states that prior to his arrival on the Commission, there was no plan or funding to invest in Helena’s long-term infrastructure needs. The Comprehensive Capital Improvement Program (CCIP), under which Helena currently operates, has been in place for well over a decade. Commissioners set rates (or not) over the years as to how they see the need as it existed at that time. The current Commission has set progressive rates, which in many cases, have lowered increases for residential users and raised them significantly for the commercial user, causing them to pay the brunt of any increased investment. In my opinion, this causes two significant problems. The average rate payer sees the favorable rates and assumes that all must be well with our infrastructure, not knowing that we face well over $100 million in shortages in our street and utilities assets. The second problem is that Helena is known by the business sector for the high costs associated with conducting business within the City. Spiking the rates to the commercial user further exacerbates that problem and the City of Helena will continue to drive them out into the county and/or other municipalities across Montana.
The next crack in the foundation is touting “that the City has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in residential solar.” Those are noble investments if you have the money. What is left out of the narrative is the fact that our police and fire departments are sorely underfunded and understaffed according to industry standard and, more importantly, according to the demand that is being placed on them by Helena. For the first time in my twenty plus years of involvement with City of Helena government, Police Chief McGee, who has always been a master of utilizing the resources he has been given without complaint, stated at a public budget meeting this spring, that the Helena Police Department staffing was an issue. The Helena Fire Department, whose calls have more than doubled in twenty years with no increase in staffing, is suffering with poor response times from that burden and from not having a third station from which to deploy. Up to this point in 2017, there have been over 76 delayed responses and 15 non-responses to emergency calls to the 911 system. When Helenans call 911, it is a critical municipal responsibility to provide a timely response to their emergencies. These essential services have very tight operating budgets and cannot annually meet their capital replacement needs. There are no easy fixes for these significant community problems, but before we pat ourselves on the back for residential solar, Helena needs to tackle such fundamental issues.
Then, there is significant citizen frustration when the Commissioners address issues such as opening relations with Cuba, accepting the terms of the Paris Climate Accord, and a mine in Meagher County. In addition, many businesses do not see the Commissioners as supportive of their needs and concerns, while developers do not see Helena as a favorable location for economic development. We have some fundamental challenges as a community. We need to “fill those cracks” in order to improve the quality of life and work in Helena’s future.
Sean Logan is a candidate for Helena City Commission.