Prior to running for a seat on the Helena City Commission, I took a lot of things for granted when it came to City services. I expected clean water when I turned on the faucet and when I flushed the toilet, I expected clean water to reappear. Although I hope otherwise, if I am not elected, I will not regret the time and effort that went into running for the City Commission because I learned so much about what happens “behind the curtain.” No doubt, I will be a better citizen for it.
To help City residents understand a little bit about the “state of the city,” I thought I would share some of the things I learned as a Commissioner candidate:
The Red Mountain Flume, which was built circa 1880, which helps get water to the Ten Mile Treatment Plant, leaks 70 - 80 percent of the water it is intending to ferry.
The pipes between Ten Mile and Helena were laid between 1890 and 1910.
Between clean water and waste water, there are 420 miles of pipes under the streets of Helena, 70 percent were laid prior to 1970, with the majority laid between 1920 and 1930, with an estimated life of 50 years.
Due to City resource constraints, “main” pipes are not often able to be replaced until they have at least 5 leaks in them, which gradually ruin road foundation.
There are 26 miles of “dead streets” in Helena, which means they are beyond repair, costing potentially $1 - $3 million per mile to replace.
There is a net cost to recycling: $1,100 per ton.
Contemplated new caps on nutrient loads on Lake Helena may cost the City $110 million for a new treatment plant, while leaving septic and agricultural nutrient loads on Lake Helena unchanged.
Each bus ride in Helena is subsidized approximately $6 or $18 depending on the service, “scheduled route” or “ADA/Para,” respectively.
10 percent of the cost of a street improvement must be invested in nonmotorized transportation, such as bike lanes or trails.
The “quiet zone” project cost approximately $750,000, but does not address all railroad crossings in and around Helena. Future safety requirements may push the cost to $1 million.
Potential Fire Department response times north of the railroad tracks are more than twice what they are south of the tracks due to the need to circumnavigate the railroad tracks.
Despite doubling the calls in the last 20 years, Police and Fire Department staffing has remained stable.
There are 6 housing starts in the surrounding counties for each one in Helena. When a new residential subdivision did not become part of the City, the City lost 162 property taxpayers.
The City Commission passed a resolution regarding the mine in White Sulphur Springs prior to the mine’s application even being submitted and prior to any kind of formal review. As a result, residents of Meagher County are boycotting Helena’s stores and services. I cannot say whether the mine impacts the Smith River or not; there are experts well equipped to make that determination. Helena imprudently and prematurely “shot itself in the foot,” possibly forfeiting $12 - $15 million/year of goods and services related to the mine’s operation for approximately 22 - 25 years.
The work and school day population increases the City’s population by approximately 60 percent (from the surrounding counties), putting pressure on many City services, such as the Police Department.
The City’s reserves seem woefully inadequate to address the City’s myriad of needs.
In my mind, the City of Helena has many infrastructure and financial challenges, which based on age and fragility, may become a pressing need at any time. Our sources of income to address these challenges only include property taxes and enterprise fees (e.g., water), neither of which any of us want raised. Therefore the preferable options would be to increase the tax and fee bases of the City of Helena through business growth, annexation, and increased home value, which create greater economies of scale and marginal cash, which will help Helena generate the necessary incremental funds for appropriate staffing of the Police and Fire Departments and reserves for structured, programmatic replacement and maintenance of Helena’s infrastructure, which are critical cornerstones of business investment, home ownership, and enhanced quality of life. Given Helena’s dependence on tax-based paychecks (State, Federal, City employees, and teachers), Helena needs other employment and income opportunities to create predictability and stability through additional tax revenues and economic balance. Think about the impact of the State of Montana’s program and staff reductions on individuals and families in Helena. Now what do they do for employment? Hopefully, my abbreviated litany of issues will help voters and citizens be a little bit better informed about Helena and what the possible implications might be as to its future, costliness, and your Commissioner leadership.
Mark A. Burzynski is running for a seat on the Helena City Commission.