Hot Out of the Gate: Priorities and Action Plan for Year One
I recently received an email with some particularly thoughtful and important questions (H/T Blake Maxwell). I've answered these below, laying out my top priorities the actions will I take in the first year to achieve them (if elected):
What are your top three priorities as a future city commissioner, and what steps to you plan to take toward them in your first year in office?
If elected, my top priority will be making sure those who live here can afford to stay here. My second priority will be building a transportation system that works for everyone and limits congestion. Finally, I intend to work every day to preserve and enhance Bozeman’s natural environment and surrounding open spaces.
To help meet our community’s housing needs, I intend first to work with my fellow commissioners to ensure that our planning department operates like a high-functioning business (rather than an understaffed bureaucracy). It takes 8 weeks (minimum) to get the same building permit in Bozeman that Belgrade issues in 5 business days or less. Our building season is short; there’s no reason why we cannot provide a careful permit review in four weeks or less.
Second, I’ll work to ensure that our next annual UDC update liberalizes rules for Accessory Dwelling Units. Bozeman’s recent revision to ADU regulations left most barriers (e.g. required special use permits in R1 zones, off-street parking requirements, owner-occupancy of the primary dwelling) intact. This tepid reform has produced tepid results—an increase from 8 ADUs permitted two years ago to 14 last year. My proposal: let’s take Vancouver’s rule book (where 35% of single-family parcels have ADUs) that was recently adopted by Seattle and adopt it here.
Beyond year one, there’s much more we can and should do to ensure that our community’s housing needs are met, particularly in eliminating regulatory barriers that make it difficult to build housing and the rules that favor expensive single-family residences over more affordable “missing-middle” housing types like duplexes, triplexes, rowhouses and condos. These reforms will require engaging the community in an informed conversation, but are ultimately necessary to maintain a middle class in Bozeman.
Second, we must begin the work of building a transportation system that provides uncongested mobility options while limiting infrastructure costs. Our current approach will lead to crippling traffic congestion and is neither fiscally nor environmentally sustainable. Instead, we need to prioritize mixed use land development (placing more daily destinations within reach by walking, biking, or transit); build safe routes for those who wish to ride a bike (which extends a person’s walking range by 3x); and begin to align our land use and development with where we can provide future mobility via walking, biking and transit.
My year-one plan is to ensure that Bozeman’s new community growth plan (on which I’m currently working as a member of the Planning Board) gets adopted by the city, and placed into the hands of our planning department for implementation. The new plan will place emphasis on mixed use development, multimodal transportation options, and focusing growth inward rather than creating more sprawl.
Second, I’ll work with Mayor Mehl and Commissioner Cunningham to see that our stated transportation priorities (active modes first) are reflected in our Capital Improvement Plan—in particular ensuring that funds are appropriated to for the Babcock Cycle Track and Black Avenue Bicycle Boulevard projects in our Transportation Master Plan.
Finally, we need to maintain and renew our efforts to protect and maintain the health of our natural environment and maintain existing open space and working lands (by growing in, rather than out). I would work with Commissioner Cunningham to introduce ordinance requiring that wetlands compensatory mitigation be completed within the East Gallatin Watershed and push for a UDC update increasing our requirements for Low Impact Development which improves water quality without increasing construction costs.
A lot of Bozeman taxpayers are lamenting “growth” this year. Assuming growth continues on a similar trajectory over the next decade, what components of growth must the City of Bozeman do better?
We can’t stop growth, even if we wanted to (Boulder, CO has succeeded in suppressing—albeit not entirely stopping—growth, and in the process has affected a nearly complete displacement of its middle class with its $800,000+ home prices).
In my view, this community and our values requires three things of how we manage our growth: 1) keep housing within reach of the middle class; 2) build a transportation system that will scale to meet our future needs; and 3) preserve our natural environment.
Just seven years ago, a household earning “average” earnings could afford a median-priced house in Bozeman. Today, it takes twice the median household income ($100k+ per year, according to our recent housing needs assessment) to afford an averaged priced house—eclipsing the reach of our community’s elementary school teachers, law enforcement officers, carpenters, ski patrollers, non-profit workers, and creative class, just to name a few. This trend will hollow our community from the inside out if unabated.
Currently, we’re planning our transportation system based on the blueprint of the most congested and expensive transportation systems in the Western world (see: Denver, Houston, Phoenix). Even if there was enough physical space to build roads enough to support a transportation system in which every daily destination requires driving, we can’t afford it: urban roads like 19th Avenue cost $5 million+ per mile to build, and far more to expand. The proposed expansion of one mile of Kagy Boulevard between 19th Avenue and Willson Avenue from two-lanes to four-lanes is estimated to cost $15,000,000 (in a town where our total annual transportation budget is ~$18m / year). The experience of other communities suggests that Kagy, if expanded, will be equally or more congested five years from now as a five-lane road as it is today.
Bozeman’s natural environment is its greatest asset, and is under threat from development and growth. We can grow in a way that conserves our natural environment but only if we adopt new growth patterns for our next 150 years.
According to the Director of Community Development, Marty Matsen, in a public meeting on September 12th, the planning department had 499 permits to review, they’re short two level-II planners, and they’re not getting many applicants. Perhaps more concerning, Assistant City Manager Chuck Winn admitted in the same meeting that the administration is “torn” about responding, given the many complaints about growth. What do you think should be done?
We need to treat our planning department as an essential city service. Our planning and inspection departments have been chronically understaffed for years. This is partly because Bozeman fails to pay competitive wages for these positions, and in part because we have failed to make allowances for maternity leave, internal transfers, etc.
A few years ago, I was the C.O.O. of a mid-sized healthcare clinic (20 providers, ~150 employees) and operated a call center for appointment scheduling. Patients complained of not being able to get through on the phone. Here’s what I did: first, I set up metrics to monitor our inbound calls: our average wait times were 3 – 5 minutes, and hundreds of callers each day hung up before having their call answered. Second, I did a root cause analysis: I found our hold times spiked on days we had staff call out sick. I also found that, with nearly 20 people in our phone bank, we had a call-out nearly every single day. Then, I acted, and monitored the results. I boosted our staffing by one FTE above our projected needs, and had outgoing call staff cross-train on inbound calls to ensure that we almost always had enough staff to answer inbound calls. By treating absenteeism as something predictable and manageable, being short-staffed became a rarity. This brought wait times down to 30 – 60 seconds and reduced dropped calls to nearly zero.
We could take the same approach to managing our planning department—if we think we need 5 FTEs to keep up with demand, then we should try to staff for 6 FTEs, knowing that we’ll probably always have at least one opening, and cross-train other staff to pinch-hit.
The cost of government in Bozeman as well as the cost of property taxes has increased dramatically in the last ten years. Please provide several concrete examples of how the increased costs have improved the lives of typical Bozeman taxpayer as well as the nature of your preferred tax plan.
It’s worth noting that in recent years the number of city FTEs per capita has been going down, even as property taxes per capita have been going up. Which is to say, property tax increases are primarily paying for capital improvements, not increased services.
One of the most significant contributors to increased property taxes in the last decade is attributable to increase spending on road building. In 2014, Public Works Director Craig Wollard identified $60m in deficiencies in Bozeman’s road network. In response, the city established the Arterials & Collectors District. Since then, the city has raised nearly $5m for arterials and collectors, on top of our existing Streets Maintenance district. In the same period, the Street Maintenance Assessment has increased by a compounded total of 65.3% (10x the rate of inflation), with an additional 8% increase approved for FY20.
It is beyond question that these assessments benefit and are benefiting the community in the form of improved mobility, especially on the west side of town, where the additional assessments are helping pay for completing the arterials grid providing connectivity for the west end.
That said, it’s difficult to reconcile taking affordability seriously with continuing to increase property taxes. This is my tax plan: 1) balance our budget sheet by boosting land productivity and minimizing new infrastructure costs; and, 2) pursue a realistic approach to capturing some tax revenue from the tourists and visitors that consume city services.
The first plank of my tax plan is to enact reforms that boost land productivity while supporting economic development and meeting our housing needs. For example, Bozeman’s recent Downtown Improvement Plan recommends reducing or eliminating downtown parking minimums. During the busiest hour of the busiest day ever measured, more than one third of downtown’s 5500 parking spaces were unoccupied—primarily in private lots, maintained by downtown business owners to comply with (manifestly) excessive parking requirements. Relative to other uses, my analysis finds that each unoccupied parking space corresponds to $1300 per year in foregone property tax revenue. As one such example, allowing some of these unused parking spaces to be converted to buildings, we can boost property tax revenues with very minimal marginal infrastructure costs. Similar reforms for allowing an increase in productivity for residential and will not only help keep a balanced budget sheet—they’ll help meet our housing needs.
The second plank of my tax plan is to diversity our revenue sources. I strongly support a local option sales tax targeting tourist spending and using that money to provide property tax relief. Unfortunately, Bozeman is unlikely to get a local option sales tax any time soon. Montana cities have tried and failed to pass a local option sales tax in nearly every state legislative session since 1981. In the last legislative session alone, there were six different local option sales tax bills introduced. Only one–pertaining only to resort communities with an existing tax–passed. If elected I would commit myself to redoubling Bozeman's lobbying efforts (traveling to Helena to testify myself in support). That said, I’m not going to sell anyone down the river by promising a tourist tax when it is beyond the power of the city commission to produce one.
A legitimately viable option to generate money from the 4 million tourists passing through Bozeman each year would be to enact a $0.02 County Gas Tax. Gallatin County is already authorized under Montana Code to create one. The County Commission seems amenable to the idea, if someone is willing to do the legwork to establish an agreed tax split among the various Gallatin County entities. If elected, I’d sign myself up for that role and would champion establishing a $0.02 County Gas tax to reduce property taxes. A second viable option is to establish a bed-tax for short-term rentals (e.g. AirBnB), provided we can do so in a manner where the enforcement and collection costs are less than tax revenues, and where revenues can be used to offset taxes that residents would otherwise pay.
In the last month, the City Commission faced the following issue: They had agreed to a budget for FY2019-2020 as well as the property tax rate that would provide for that budget. When the tax assessments for the year came in high, the agreed-upon tax rate created a surplus. The question is simple: would you have voted to keep the tax revenue surplus or return it to taxpayers?
Return it to taxpayers.
The Bozeman public and the City Commission have been discussing “affordable housing” since before the recession. In your opinion, why hasn’t the City gotten any demonstrable traction on the issue, and what specifically do you plan to do about in the first year of office?
We’ve not just failed to gain traction on affordable housing, we’ve lost considerable ground, and it’s not hard to see why:
First, what we’re doing we’re doing by half measures. I’ve already described how our recent ADU reform has failed to accomplish its purpose by stopping well shy of a meaningful actual policy reform. Bozeman’s 2016 inclusionary zoning ordinance has performed exactly as the experience of other cities would suggest: our lackluster “incentives” failed to attract any voluntary participants, and our now mandatory policy is similarly failing to produce affordable units while increasing the cost of all new market-rate units.
Second, we’re dithering. We’re studying the subject to death. First, we did a needs assessment. Now we’re spending a year creating an action plan. Successful communities are both nimble and willing to experiment. In the time we’ve been studying what we’re going to do about affordable housing (while doing nothing) housing prices have gone up by 15%. In my view, it’s better to agile and willing to fail quickly and try something new than spend years writing the perfect plan.
Third, there are realities of Bozeman’s political economy. Less than one in five Bozeman residents participate in our municipal elections; of those (based on my analysis of the voter file and cadastral tax records) three quarters are owner-occupants. Unfortunately, many existing homeowners view affordable housing as more of a threat than a community need. There’s no organized advocacy in Bozeman for smart policies that will produce more housing. Where City Commission has shown willingness to embrace hard decisions, it has mostly been at the behest of well-organized and well-funded developers (not suggesting malfeasance, only acknowledging the need for an strong "ask").
Given these political realities, it’s small wonder that our commission is continuing business as usual, even as housing prices go up 2.5 faster than middle-class wages. As pointed out above, there are 499 applications in with the city to build something here, and no one seems to be yelling that the building in on fire.
As a city commissioner, my approach would be 1) embracing meaningful reform; 2) take an agile approach to reform that favors tactical responses over hiring an endless litany of consultants; and 3) by treating affordable housing as the community crisis it is and according our affordability crisis the urgency it deserves.