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Billings City Council members offer different takes on $143M parks bond

owen and rupsis.jpg
Posted at 2:55 PM, Sep 27, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-28 10:59:06-04

BILLINGS - The city is roughly a month away from a ballot measure asking taxpayers to decide on a $143 million bond, which would help pay for a multi-use, multi-generational recreation center.

The measure will greet voters on Nov. 7. It’s been decades since voters were tasked with deciding on the future of parks, meaning this bond will put the choice back in the hands of residents.

It also comes at a time when the cost of living is volatile for many families.

“I think we have really been conscious about understanding the cost that this is going to be,” said Tom Rupsis, a city council member for Ward 5, which includes the West End extending south to Elysian.

Rupsis and Council member Jennifer Owen, who represent the Heights in Ward 2, candidly discussed community need, financial transparency, and how a parks bond intertwines with the looming concern over public safety in a recent interview with MTN News.

Each have different takes on the issue.

“I think we need to be honest about what the amount is. It’s not a $143 million bond, it’s a $200 million bond at minimum,” Owen said.

Owen says the price disclosed to the public doesn’t consider maintenance and upkeep for the recreation center.

The bond measure is a historic ask for Billings.

“We need this in Billings. It's long past time,” said Rupsis.

Owen has big concerns, especially considering public safety, asking if public funds wouldn’t be better allocated to serve that purpose first.

“There is indication that building up our park’s infrastructure can be a good preventative measure,” said Owen. “But the majority of this bond is going to a rec center.”

Owen is right about that: $85 million of the bond would go to build the recreation center on the Billings South Side at Amend Park.

It’s a bone of contention for opponents of the bond. Many have asked why the parks improvements and rec center are being considered on one ballot.

“While I would love to see investment in our parks, and in fact many on the Council tried to separate these so the voters could have a fair choice,” Owen said. “And discuss parks first and a rec center when it's ready.”

But Billings parks and trails are in dire need of upgrades. For example, the pool house at South Park has been standing for roughly 100 years.

"We shut South Park pool down because the equipment malfunctioned or broke,” said Rupsis. “We can’t do that, we can’t build a rec center and let South pool fail."

The bond would also provide more than $26 million to improve five city parks, including $10 million for the South Park pool.

The bond would also cover an expansion of North Park’s community center as well as the Zimmerman Center at Pioneer, which could help the city accommodate more community programs and activities.

Both sides admit that cost is a factor in where they stand on the parks bond issue, with Rupsis saying the time to act is now considering rising costs. He says inflation was already considered and factored into the cost.

“The master plan for the rec center assumed it would be built in about three years,” said Rupsis.

The bond comes at a time when across-the-board property tax hikes worry Montana residents.

“This year, because of property evaluations in Billings, the average homeowner is going to be experiencing 22% increases, so they are already reeling from the property values and inflation and then we come to them with more money,” said Owen.

The bond would cost $52.66 annually for every $100,000 of value of a Billings home. For the owner of a median-priced Billings home, which is $307,600, the bond would cost $158 per year, or $13.16 per month, according to the city.

The issue is a lot for Billings voters to consider.

Watch the full discussion below:

Full video: Billings City Council members debate parks bond