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Because tax increment finance districts (TIFDs) created inside city limits impact county government and taxpayers, Yellowstone County Commissioners are petitioning the City of Billings to be included on the boards which oversee the administration of such districts.
Commissioner Bill Kennedy, in approving a letter that is being sent to Mayor Tom Hanel, pointed out that $146,221, “in 2009 alone,” was lost by the county to the TIFDs. The commissioners are asking for a joint meeting of city and county officials to discuss the issue further.
Yellowstone County Commissioners announced their intent to engage the services of Hulteng Construction as consultants to advise them in the process of replacing the Rimrock Auto Arena at Metra Park. The county, upon the advice of their insurance company, also engaged the services of Restore-X of Montana, a Sidney based company, to deal with restoration issues of the tornado-damaged complex.
“We need more expertise than our in-house staff, to determine what kind of process we want to go through to move this project forward,’ said Yellowstone County Finance Director Scott Turner. County officials have been taking stock and cleaning up the grounds of Metra Park following the storm.
Hulteng Construction, with principles Erick Hulteng and Shane Swandal, will help identify what steps are next, in the process of restoring the county-owned facility which was significantly damaged by a tornado on Father’s Day.
Hulteng Construction has worked with county officials on other projects, such as building the addition to the county jail. They will not bid themselves on any of the jobs.
County Commissioners directed Turner to draft a letter of engagement with the company to assist in the process of developing a time-line for reconstruction and to help develop a bid package – although a traditional bidding process will not be followed in the reconstruction. The day following the storm, commissioners declared a state of emergency, which allows them to suspend normal bidding practices in order to speed along the process.
Commissioner Bill Kennedy said that they plan to solicit proposals from local firms for each project and then select from those submitted.
“We want someone to do some creative thinking,” said Commissioner John Ostlund, adding, “I feel if we turn the private sector loose they will do a great job.”
As serious a blow as the destruction of the arena was to the county, the rebuilding “will be good for the private sector,” at a time when the economy is slow, said Kennedy. Commissioners said that their consultants are well aware of the desire to use local contractors, vendors and labor, as much as possible.
Restore-X hired some twenty people locally during their first week, and may hire as many as one-hundred before the project is completed.
An amazing amount of clean-up was accomplished over the past week, but there is much more to be done, said Ostlund. Early last week, volunteers from throughout the community arrived at Metra to help clean the grounds, while others focused on other areas of the Heights. Two Heights businesses were destroyed by the tornado and others were damaged, scattering debris all over the area.
One of the first tasks in commencing work on the arena, is the removal of the remaining HVAC units that remain on what’s left of the roof, and the removal of the large pieces of metal that lay tangled atop. That job will probably require a crane, said Ostlund.
An important aspect of restoration, said Kennedy, will be the drying out of the arena. A lot of rain has soaked every nook and cranny.
The former Pierce Packing Plant will be used for storing materials and salvaged items, which is ideally located for easy access to MetraPark.
Modular buildings have been acquired and will be set up this week to accommodate a box office and offices for MetraPark staff.
The MetraPark Advisory Board met on Tuesday after the tornado, in the Expo Building, enjoying a complimentary lunch from Texas Roadhouse. It was noted that many businesses, like Texas Roadhouse, and people from all over the community have volunteered services and resources. Two businesses from the construction industry had representatives at the meeting offering their resources to help out if needed.
Members of the advisory board told their commissioner-liaison, Bill Kennedy, that they wanted to be part of the process in rebuilding the arena. They recommended gathering input from people throughout the community for ideas, and especially from past users and vendors of MetraPark. Chairman of the Board Ken Fitchner said that as horrible as the situation is, it also poses an opportunity for the facility to pursue many of the ideas and plans that they have long talked about.
Kennedy said they would certainly be welcomed to submit input, but reminded them that the rebuilding is on a fast-track and the process would have to be a quick one. He also told the board that, more so than ever before, they would be relying upon the board to help out with Montana Fair in August.
Only two events have so far been cancelled – Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley. Commissioners, Metra Board members and staff are working hard to find alternative venues for all events, either at MetraPark or some place else in the community. The greatest risk factor faced by MetraPark is in lost revenue, officials reported, since the county has adequate insurance to cover property losses.
Local community leaders are searching for a BEHAG – “a big hairy audacious goal.”
Leaders representing a wide array of community planning, civic and economic development efforts have been meeting to coordinate efforts and to identify a common goal upon which everyone can focus to enhance the community.
Several meetings have been held, under the coordination of Steve Arveschoug, Director of the Big Sky Economic Development Authority, to discuss ideas. An emerging theme is “from the rims to the river,” as they identify projects that seem to focus on connecting many of the city’s significant sites and enhancing their access and visibility for the community and for visitors.
The theme is in keeping with the findings of a consulting firm’s recommendations to improve signage in the city, said John Brewer, Director of the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce. The chamber recently commissioned Randell Research to conduct a study of Billings tourism and one of their conclusions was that visitors have a hard time locating facilities and sites in the city, said Brewer.
Besides EDA and the Chamber, other groups involved in the visioning project include representatives from the City of Billings, Yellowstone County, the Downtown Billings Association, the East Billings Urban Renewal District, Metra Park, the colleges, etc.
Brewer talked about “developing a sense of place” by improving the areas of Yellowstone Kelly’s grave and Boot Hill Cemetery, Swords Park and the Museum of the Yellowstone, and connecting them through Metra Park to the Yellowstone River, via bike trails and pathway, some of which are already in the planning, and are expected to play a significant role in creating the connectivity. Improved signage is also part of that plan. It’s been proposed that the needed signage would cost about $35,000.
Improving the entry way into Billings from the Lockwood exit from the interstate was also among the recommendations. It would be the “Trailhead entryway.”
Proposed development for the area across from MetraPark west of Expo Drive was also recognized as an opportunity for the future of Billings and would blend in as part of the overall theme.
Another idea that fits with the vision, according to some, is the development of a conference or convention facility – and preferably located downtown Billings – but part of the work to be done requires identifying the best place for such a facility.
The revitalization of Minnesota Avenue would be “a quick win,” was among the comments, from individuals who said that it is important to identify and prioritize other things that can be “quick wins” in the process.
The meetings have resulted in the formation of a Vision Steering Committee that will oversee the implementation of the collective objectives. It will be staffed by City/County Planning and the Big Sky Economic Development’s Community Development Division. Named to the Steering committee were Marty Connell, Commissioner Bill Kennedy, Metra Park Manager Bill Dutcher, Council Member Jani McCall, Mayor Tom Hanel, City Administrator Tina Volek, businessman, Steve Wahrlich and DBA Administrator Greg Krueger, Chamber President John Brewer and Alan Karell, Rick Leuthold and Steve Arveschough, with EDA support staff Patty Nordlund and Steve Zeier.
The Compensation Committee for Elected Officials unanimously approved a recommendation to increase the base pay for Yellowstone County elected officials by one percent. The end result is an average total salary increase of about .72 percent.
Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund, a member of the committee, said that if it weren’t for the difficulties involved in calculating longevity pay by freezing salaries, he would have recommended that.
Another member of the committee, Oscar Heinrich said that one percent is about the only increase anyone in the private sector is getting in wage increases – “if they get that.” He said that he believed the county officials should “lead by example.”
The county commissioners will consider the recommendation at their next board meeting on July 6.
The increase raised the base pay from $58,938.69 to $59,528.07.
The committee did nothing to alter the longevity pay increase for Carol Muessig, County Clerk of Court, who is the only elected county official remaining under the five-year cap on longevity, which the committee recommended several years ago. Muessig’s total pay will be $63,053, after the annual longevity increase of $4,114.41.
Other increases in compensation are called for by state law for the county commissioners and sheriff – an annual increase of $2,000. Including maximum longevity pay of $20,572, the commissioners will earn an annual salary of $81,510.74.
The highest paid elected county official is the County Attorney, Dennis Paxinos at $106,870, whose pay level is linked to state judicial levels.
Sheriff Jay Bell’s salary will be $78,620.
County Clerk and Recorder, Tony Nave will earn $85,404, and includes a stipend for performing the duties of the county surveyor.
Treasurer Max Lenington will also receive $85,404, which includes a stipend for assuming the duties of county assessor.
School Superintendent A. J. Micheletti, a part time position, earns $40,755.37.
Justices of the Peace Pedro Hernandez and Larry Herman each earn $79,510.
Total payroll for county elected officials in fiscal year 2010-11 will be $949,655.74 — $6,483 more than last year – not including the state mandated increases.
The compensation committee is made up of the county commissioners, Clerk and Recorder, Sheriff, County Attorney and two at large citizens – Oscar Heinrich and Billie Ruff.
The Supreme Court is expected to hand down its decision soon in a major case involving the massive and costly Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, Free Enterprise Fund v. Public Company Accounting Oversight Board. The Court could issue its ruling as early as this Thursday, and will definitely hand it down by the end of June when its session closes.
The Montana Department of Commerce is providing $20,000 in emergency contingency funds to assist the Billings Chamber of Commerce/Convention and Visitors Bureau in the aftermath of the tornado that struck the city, June 20.
The funds, which are allocated through the Montana Office of Tourism for marketing purposes, are to assist communities whose tourism industry is adversely impacted by an unforeseen emergency, such as a natural disaster.
“Billings is a vital component of Montana’s successful tourism industry. It is essential we provide assistance,” said Anthony Preite, Director of the Montana Department of Commerce. “The severity of the destruction at the onset of Billings’ busiest travel season and the wide national media exposure make this a high priority. Through these funds, we hope to mitigate the loss of business and travel revenue and help spread the message that Billings is indeed, ‘open for business’.”
“Billings has really pulled together over the last week to address the significant impacts this event is having on the business and travel industry,” said John Brewer, President/ CEO of the Billings Chamber of Commerce/Convention & Visitors Bureau. “This grant will help us retain business and propel our important outreach efforts, by letting regional and national meeting planners know Billings is still their destination of choice.”
In 2009, Billings collected over $2 million in lodging tax revenue. As Montana’s largest city, they are a major contributor of bed tax revenue for the state and they serve as Montana’s principal convention and event city. In addition, Billings is a starting point for travelers to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Yellowstone National Park and a myriad of smaller communities surrounding the city. Assuring the success of Billings’ tourism industry helps secure the economic health of Montana’s communities both large and small.
By Evelyn Pyburn
If it weren’t for the revenues diverted in the five tax increment finance districts (TIFD), how much more revenue would be available to the county budget and the budget of other governmental entities?
That’s the question that Kevin Nelson of Billings asked himself in launching research that no one else seemed interested in doing. While there are variables involved, the answer to Nelson’s question is somewhere between $170,000 and $180,000.
The Big Sky Business Journal
P.O. Box 3262
Billings, MT 59103