I have avoided writing this piece because I thought our actions would speak louder than our resolutions, but that obviously has not happened. Over the last few months, the letters to the editor, and opinion pieces, have ignored what we, as a city commission have accomplished over the last few years. Instead, people focused on the newsworthy actions – our resolutions. Yes, we passed a number of resolutions, but in the meantime we also took the city’s real issues head on and created significant change: we focused on infrastructure, we focused on public safety, and we focused on development.
During my tenure on the commission, we fundamentally changed the way the city addressed our infrastructure needs. We have over $100 million of infrastructure needs, and before last year, that burden was bourne on the backs of our residents. Well, last year, we changed that. We implemented a new rate structure that focused on making those who cause wear on our streets, use our water and wastewater and generate storm water to pay for our infrastructure. In doing so, we’ve managed to reduce the burden on homeowners. This year alone, we reduced the proposed rate increase on homeowners by $35 per year – from $80 to $45, while still funding our infrastructure needs for the next five years. We’re also in the process of creating a fund to assist homeowners in financing the repairs of broken water or sewer lines. Finally, we refocused our street priorities by looking at the streets that need fixing: Rodney, Sixth, 11th, and both malfunction junctions – these were not previous commissions’ priorities. So we focused on infrastructure.
We also focused on public safety. Last year, for example, the police department was slated to lose an employee; reducing our force to 49. Due to Commissioner Haladay’s efforts, we retained that police officer and hired another city prosecutor. We also hired a victim’s advocate to ensure that victims' voices were heard, and crimes were being prosecuted. This year, we continued the trend, and increased our firefighter minimum staffing from six to seven. This is still shy of the recommended number, but it is the first increase we’ve had in 20 years. So we focused on public safety.
Development of Helena’s economy was also a focal point. We’ve all heard about the loss of downtown businesses due to Blue Cross Blue Shield moving to the east side, but what most people haven’t noticed is the effort the commission has taken to improve our downtown. Most importantly, we incorporated the downtown master plan into our growth policy to make sure that Helena remains attractive to businesses. Not only did we approve the master plan, we began implementing it. We are currently focused on restructuring downtown zoning and creating affordable housing in downtown. At the same time, we looked to the railroad district, and created a tax increment finance district to reinvest in one of Helena’s most historic and vital districts. And, we created two fixed routes for our bus system. So we focused on economic development.
The only way we continue implementing these types of policies is by electing the right people. This time around, the people that will make sure our infrastructure, public safety, and economic development needs are met are Commissioner Haladay, Heather O’Loughlin, and Wilmot Collins. Without these three, I am confident we will see our fire department continue to be understaffed, our streets not repaired, and our economic interests not protect.
Rob Farris-Olsen is a member of the Helena City Commission.