Mayoral candidates butt heads at forum

By: 
Alastair Baker
News Editor
Thursday, October 24, 2019
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Photo by Alastair Baker
Mayoral candidate Diane Dimich.

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Photo by Alastair Baker
Red Lodge Mayor Bill Larson.

The race to become the next Mayor of Red Lodge lit the occasional fuse but mainly followed standard procedure at last Thursday’s candidate forum at the Red Lodge Elk’s Lodge.

Mayor Bill Larson and mayoral candidate Diane Dimich sparred over various questions, and did mildly clash over ways to maintain civility and public discourse within the City ranks. 

In response Dimich said it is up to the Mayor to help with this. 

“I know that I can help bring the county together and help with the school. He (Larson) is the leader, he needs to step up to the plate, and act like a grown up and let us do our jobs and let’s do this publicly and let’s work together for the good of Red Lodge,” she said.

“I guess that pretty much spoke for itself,” replied Larson. “When we changed to having work sessions meetings and city council meetings, each one of the City council was assigned an department head to work with them to bring resolutions and ordinances forward so we can help those department heads to accomplish things. It’s a tool and we need them to keep the city running. We need that interaction and we can carry forward,” said Larson. 

Both candidates were asked to sum up why they’d be the best choice as Mayor with Larson pointing out that in the two years as Mayor he’d been “hands-on, in the office from 9 to 3 even while taking care of my wife.”

“I enjoy working there. The department heads and staff interact really well, we work together fantastically. We have a lot of other things to accomplish in the next two years and I’m looking to stand up and do that for you. Once again I will keep office hours. During the freeze ups, I put my number on Facebook and said call me, even during the Haggin Water Project. We do need to carry the Resort Tax and our financial situation, and look at it to see if we need to make (Special) Districts.”

“In order for this community to move forward we have to have the mayor and the council and the staff together, working together for the good of the City of Red Lodge,” said Dimich. 

She recommended going back to hiring contract attorneys to save the City more money. 

Prior to the end, the debate had followed a reasonable protocol. 

A question about what the candidates thought the public wanted from their police department, Larson told the audience that Red Lodge is the “7th safest city in Montana.”

“And we want to keep it that way. And part of that is by having 24/7 coverage. I talk with Chief (Jason) Wells daily and discuss this,” said Larson. “His budget is 33 percent of the general fund and that enables us to have 7 officers and a chief. When you look at it and say that and then look at a calendar and do 10-hour shifts, and figure out how many people it takes to cover a city with time off, training, and sick (leave). It works out at 7 officers no matter how you put it.” 

“We love our safe community we have right now,” said Larson. “Chief Wells is doing a great job. Officers are patrolling, actually walking downtown. After 3 a.m. (they are) checking doors, and leaving cards to let people know we are doing that. They did a fantastic job in the (Beartooth) Rally we kept the number of officers down from the outside because they do a fantastic job. They are friendly. Not there just to arrest people. We probably give 4 warning tickets to every ticket that is written.” 

“It doesn’t take long in the criminal community to know that they don’t have an officer on from 3 a.m. to 6 a.m.,” said Larson.

In responding Dimich wished that someone “would actually define what 24/7 means. Because everybody says 24/7, does it mean 2 officers, one officer or someone on call?” 

“It is important that people are aware of what the police department is providing for the money they are getting. We’ve asked this year about service contracts. Let us know what you are providing and if we need more we can go out and get a Public Safety Mill Levy voted in by the voters. The police department is taking up most of the general fund. It’s actually closer to 40 percent of the fund,” said Dimich.

Their funding “has taken money for your parks, pools and your streets,” she said.

Dimich pointed out “that Columbus is the third safest city in Montana and they have 5 officers with 24/7 coverage. I find that amazing.” 

“As far as the Harley Rodeo (Beartooth Rally) goes,” said Dimich, “they’ve (Red Lodge Police) asked for $5,000 for extra police coverage for that weekend alone.”

She said that after talking with other police officers “Harley Rodeo is not our biggest crime infested event. 4th of July is much bigger, and last year I think Christmas Stroll even beat it.  Asking people to give more money is over the top and sad.” 

“I don’t know if there was lot of crime over Christmas Stroll,” said Larson. “Diane brought up Columbus and Red Lodge. Yes, they have 5 officers and one chief, but they went $15,000 over budget last year and that came to $603,500. Chief Wells’ budget last year, after he gave back $41,000 of unused money, came to $612,999. It’s really close. When you talk to the Columbus Chief you find out the officers are very stressed, need time off, or training. They are using substitute people, and we are trying get away from that, to have our own officers and not an outside agency that doesn’t know our community.”

The two candidates did agree that the Resort Tax needs to be supported and specifically the additional one percent on top of the present amount that is being permitted by the legislature. 

“Personally I would like to see that one percent go to storm water because storm water would improve people’s lives in Red Lodge, no more storm water going into the sewer ponds or people’s basements being flooded,” said Dimich. 

“As we move forward we have to deal with what is under the streets, I would personally like to see the Resort Tax for streets. In the past we were told that was what it was for and they were going to be wonderful and they aren’t wonderful.”

“It is over $800,000 now,” said Larson, “and the City needs that money and with the people coming through town it doubles and triples at times with the tourists and we need that to help with our infrastructure. I think that the way it is allocated now after the auditors reviewed it, they said we can only use it for capital projects. We need to look at that and divide that pie up, and I would like to see a certain amount towards streets or storm water or different departments that need it to keep our infrastructure going and I think the (Resort Tax) Committee is on board with that.”

When asked about their accomplishments during their City government tenure, Dimich cited “getting everybody’s wages back to the right categories.”  

“There were many items being paid out of water and sewer fees that should not have been because Montana Code Annotated said you can’t do that,” she said. They are now paid from the general fund. She also cited helping clear up the angled parking issue, getting the Resort Tax back on track and the budget.

For Larson, he referred to saving the City $2.2 million through refinancing loans, expediting the Haggin Water Project and shaving $66,000 off the budget; providing the Country Club Estates with chip sealed streets via a SID; hiring a police chief after a vacancy of two years; and providing water to those hit by the big freeze last March.  

The questions were created by a committee of three members of the Red Lodge Elks Lodge who consulted and agreed on the questions that were presented. The three members were the only ones to have access to the questions until hours before the forum when they were presented to Todd. 

At the request of Mayor Larson the candidate debate was filmed by an independent company and can be viewed on the Red Lodge Elk’s Lodge Facebook page. 

 

 

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