On Tax Abatements: Billings Says “Yes” Where Great Falls Says “No”

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great falls Billings

Back in the day, oh, forty or fifty years ago, there was an ongoing friendly competition between Great Falls and Billings as to which was the best and biggest city. The two Montana big dogs battling for bragging rights. I remember because I was a young sprout at the time, delivering the Great Falls Leader, going to the Liberty Theater for Saturday matinees and ice skating at the indoor Civic Center rink.

Well, Great Falls has been left in the dust by our one-time rival Billings. According to the US Census Bureau, Billings’ population as of 2016 is 110,323, and Great Falls is 59,178.

According to a presentation by Great Falls Development Authority President Brett Doney at a recent neighborhood council meeting, Billings has an industrial tax base of around 19% while Great Falls is at about 3%.

Why? There are several reasons, like the closing of the Anaconda Mining Company, a reduced BN railroad presence, no major college, we’re off the east-west interstate highway etc., but with each passing year the various “reasons” begin to sound more and more like excuses.

A good example of why Billings won the dogfight and continues to win can be found in a recent article from the Billings Gazette.

Two weeks ago, Yellowstone County approved a tax break for the Phillips 66 oil refinery in Billings for a $298 million project:

“The project added 18 full-time positions, bringing total workforce to 320 full-time and two-part time positions. Average wage of new employees is $71.30 per hour, including benefits.”

In contrast, in December of 2016 the Great Falls City Commission voted to deny a $6.3 million tax abatement spread out over 10 years for Calumet Montana Refining Co., which had just completed a $450 million expansion here in Great Falls. Approval of the abatement could have meant more jobs and more economic activity for local business. From the city staff report:

“Staff Comment: The expansion of the refinery has had a very positive impact on employment opportunities within the City. According to data provided by Calumet, the total cumulative effect of adding 40 full-time refinery jobs is anticipated to produce 276 jobs in the industry. It is not known how many of the 276 jobs will be located within the City of Great Falls or Cascade County.”

But no.

To be fair, I was conflicted about the approval of the Calumet tax abatement at the time and reluctantly opposed it after having read the city staff’s reasoning in their recommendation to oppose. Hindsight is always 20-20. I was wrong.

My reasoning at the time was basically that homeowners, especially those living on a fixed income, were going to end up paying more of the cost of local government and infrastructure if we didn’t spread those costs out more to our industrial tax base.

Boy, was I wrong. In the intervening year and a half we have seen our local homeowner taxes continue to go up, up and away with no end in sight. The relief and breathing room for working class citizens and small business I had anticipated has not materialized.

We’re not really in a friendly competition with Billings anymore. They’ve left Great Falls in the dust when it comes to growth and opportunity. But we can get back on track if we’re willing to look at what other state and regional communities are doing to prosper and expand and if we’re willing to adapt and adopt their winning policies and strategies here.

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Rick Tryon is a Great Falls entrepreneur, singer-songwriter and pundit. Helping Montana become an even greater place to live, play and work is Tryon’s passion and four generations of his family currently call Great Falls ‘home.’

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