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Billings mayor donates $500K to parks bond private fund

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Posted at 12:59 AM, Sep 14, 2023
and last updated 2023-09-14 12:06:03-04

Billings Mayor Bill Cole announced Wednesday he's delivering a huge gift as the city pushes to pass a $143 million parks bond.

Cole and his wife Anne will contribute $500,000 to private donations to the parks projects.

"Anne and I love Billings, and this is a way to give back," Cole said.

That bond would help pay for a new recreation center along with several major improvements to city parks.

The bond amount is one of the largest ever in the state.

For comparison, earlier this year, Laurel looked to pass an $88 million school bond, but only half of that passed for improvements to the elementary school.

In Billings, voters passed a $7.1 million safety levy in 2020 while a $1.5 million school levy was voted down last year.

The Bozeman City Commission considered sending a $99 million project bond to voters for a recreation aquatics and Library Center, but commissioners postponed any bond votes until next year.

Cole says the South Park pool building needs to be replaced.

He showed the deteriorating family bathroom and other areas that need repair.

"That's our number one goal, to make sure the water is safe and the facilities clean," said Kory Thomson, city of Billings recreation superintendent.

The Coles are passionate about park improvements, and their contribution brings the total private donations to about half of the $6 million required to start the projects.

"Kids deserve a great place to recreate," said Anne Cole. "They thrive when they have activities."

The potential $6 million in donations is dependent on the bond passing in November.

Even with the private money, the city will ask for the full $143 million.

"We have to go to the voters for the full amount," the mayor said. "In theory, it might be that there would be no private donations. We know that's not the case. We know there will be many millions of dollars of private donations. But we have to assume the worst-case scenario when we issue those bonds."

But some are not as excited about the project that would add about $50 in taxes for every $100,000 of the home's value.

"The Rec Center is such a flagrant waste of money," said Clark Johnson.

Johnson once served on the parks advisory board.

He says about $1 million of the bond will go to develop Cottonwood Park on 54th Street West, which he says is much less than he believed was going to be allocated a few years ago.

Johnson said he would have liked to see two separate bonds: $85 million for the Rec Center and $57 million for parks and trails.

"They took the money away from a nice family park in west Billings, Cottonwood Park, to put that money into the rec center," Johnson said.

The mayor says a nine-page resolution would direct the city to work on all projects, not just the rec center.

"I think the priority would be to build community center in some parks where they don't exist now," Bill Cole said.

That would include South, North, Pioneer and Castle Rock parks, according to Cole.

"That's the quality of life that makes us love Billings," Anne Cole said.