Helena Mayor Jim Smith hopes voters will value his experience and record in giving him another term, while his challenger Wilmot Collins, a child protection specialist with the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, says he would bring passion to the job and take the city to the next level.
The mayoral candidates answered questions Thursday on Helena Civic Television in a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Helena Area. Moderator Claudette Morton grilled the candidates for the nonpartisan position on topics ranging from the downtown master plan to public safety.
Smith, who is seeking a fifth term, told the cameras and about 25 people attending the forum that he loves working for the people, appreciates the nonpartisan and nongeographic form of government and would like to continue to work on several ongoing projects.
Collins said his motivation to run came from the adage of “don’t complain when you don’t get involved.”
“I see some things I thought we could improve on, I’ve seen some things we could do differently and reset some priorities,” he said.
When asked about making Helena an inviting place to come to and do business, Smith said welcoming people to the city is a part of the job he enjoys. As for businesses, it’s the city’s job to provide good infrastructure and good compliance with regulations for services such as water and sewage. Developing relationships with other public entities such as schools and private businesses is also important.
Collins said he believed entering the city could be made more inviting, suggesting that signage be placed that welcomes visitors to Helena. He would also like to see tourism expanded and explore tax incentives to attract businesses.
The candidates’ responses diverged when they were asked about the adopted master plan aimed at bolstering the downtown business improvement district.
Smith marveled at the public input that went into the plan, but noted that funding many of the ideas, such as a public market, remain challenging. A patchwork of zoning is also a major challenge that the city must address, he said.
The Walking Mall must be prioritized as well, he said, noting that the last major investment came a decade ago.
“It’s time for a reinvestment, and when we make an investment this time, I think we’ve got to understand that it’s an ongoing continuous process of cultivating business on that mall, beautifying that mall, getting rid of the trip hazards and generally making it a friendly place for pedestrians, cyclists, the tour train and any number of other uses,” Smith said.
Collins felt the focus on downtown missed the bigger picture of business opportunity in Helena.
“Helena is not only downtown. Helena is much bigger than downtown,” he said, adding that visitors to Helena want more than a five or 10-minute walk through downtown as an attraction.
Collins suggested targeting areas such as the Sixth Ward to bring in more businesses, and spending more time talking to businesses to see what they want and need.
Affordable housing was the next topic, with both candidates recognizing a need.
Smith identified space on Helena’s west end as a good location for expansion that should include affordable living for specialized groups such as seniors. The Helena Housing Authority is the main agent for affordable housing with 800 units, with half of those at Stewart Homes near Helena High School.
“But it’s very old -- it’s a miracle the units at Stewart Homes are in as good a shape as they are,” he said, saying the city would assist where possible.
Collins said the city should look at its own property while addressing youth and veteran homelessness.
“Let’s start collaborating with developers,” he said, lamenting the cost of housing compared to wages. “I think we have unlimited options when it comes to affordable housing. We just have to get down to it and get it done.”
On the topic of public safety, Smith said the city has already worked to provide grants to nonprofits for issues such as mental health. He also touted bolstered hiring of Helena Police officers beyond the department’s budget to fill gaps due to challenges such as injuries or military deployments.
Smith, apparently noting a call from former Helena fire chief and current city commission candidate Sean Logan for more firefighters, praised their work but said expansion is unlikely.
“It’s daunting to think about a major expansion of the Helena fire department,” he said. “It’s very expensive and we’re up against any kind of property tax limit that the state has imposed on us.”
Collins said he would make public safety a priority and would like to see more police officers hired.
“When we moved here 23 years ago I used to watch police ride bicycles and interact with the community,” he said. “They got to know the people they were working for, they got to know the people they were working with,” but now can only react to crime and complete paperwork.
Collins says he would also push for additional firefighter hiring after learning that 75 calls last year were delayed and 15 unattended due to capacity.