The Red Lodge Mayoral Forum held last Thursday at the Beartooth Elk’s Lodge #534 witnessed fundamental differences between the two candidates, Ed Williams and Tom Weaver, none more so than one of Weaver’s suggestions of promoting the town by welcoming in biker gangs.
“We have to promote Red Lodge, make it a tourist town now, that’s our priority, and welcome everyone with open arms even if they’re wearing colors and let them know. And if anyone wants to meet a president of those gangs, I can arrange it,” said Weaver. The comment caused a puzzled ripple through the attending 100-plus citizens, curious to hear what these new voices had to say prior to the Nov. 5 election. In the opening rounds, both candidates were keen to highlight their ideas for growth. Weaver, who was born in Red Lodge and whose roots in the area go back to 1883, said, “I think what we need right here is someone who will listen to businesses. A lot of them are people who live outside town and don’t have a voice, and that is whom I want to represent, right now.” Weaver wants to focus on the East and West coasts to bring in “wealthier people.” “We need to promote Red Lodge as a destination town. We have no coal; no agriculture and all the implements stores are in Billings. The elevator’s gone. What have we got? It’s either a gated community for retired people, or a destination for tourists. I think I like the tourists,” he said. Williams, whose grandparents homesteaded in Comanche (25 miles north of Billings) in the late 1880s, feels that Red Lodge’s biggest markets are closer than Weaver intimated.
“We have Billings, Cody, the Dakotas and Minnesota and that is where most of our people come from and we need to focus on that part as well. I don’t disagree with Tom. If we can bring them from everywhere, do it, but that is our primary market. Next year the road will be dug up again, and we can do a lot better job of helping businesses and tourists get downtown than we did this year. I also want to get rid of the (snow) berms along the road and try to help our merchants,” said Williams. The chasm between them continued concerning budgeting and its distribution between departments. Williams explained that although the general fund was $2.1 million, 2/3 of this was pay roll with expenditure taking a further chunk. “Our budget is not growing as fast as our expenditures. When you take the payroll out, and fixed expenses, it leaves $150,000.
It’s very tight and that’s why we need a priority-based budget to prioritize all the things we need to get done,” he said. Weaver’s response to budgeting issues was to look into the cost of various departments. “I think we are overstocked in some areas,” Weaver said. He suggested replacing the outgoing Police Chief Richard Pringle with someone already inside the department, and “save a little bit of money coming in there.” Weaver felt the police budget, which is strictly salary, is high at $500,000 and that didn’t include vehicle gas consumption. “I think Rockport walking shoes would almost be as good for a lot of them,” he said Weaver. He also felt the fire department, with “almost as high a budget”, could be “slowed down.” “How many vehicles have they got? We’ve got one of the best fire departments in the state and they are kind of hurting us,” he said.
Williams confirmed the fire department budget stands at $255,000, and the police at $570,000, adding that although the fire department has a “barn full of vehicles, they only own three of them.” Candidates were asked to outline their top three priorities. Weaver’s included “straightening out” the complaints against the police department from both businesses and the public. “Our police department seems to have forgotten how to give a complimentary ticket to those that come in a little fast. I think that can be straightened out,” said Weaver. Weaver’s second issue was the way the main street water rehab project was carried out, feeling that “it should have been one complete contract.” “I’ve worked on these contracts. City and state can work on this, you don’t need to tear up everything twice. There are two businesses in town close to folding,” he said. Weaver’s final concern is over where water and sewer infrastructure was to come from to oversee the influx of people coming into Red Lodge.
“Right now the recent storms blew the man hole covers off some storm drains,’ Weaver said. “Something has to be done.” William’s concerns centered on replacing the present incremental budget with a priority budget as well as city personnel, and the three retiring department heads: Police Chief Richard Pringle, Public Works Director Skip Boyer and Debbie Tomicich, the city clerk. “Their replacements will be important, and we must get proper people to do those jobs,” he said. Williams also wants to enhance human resource management within the city departments as well as improve communication between the City and the citizens and develop a capital improvement plan for the town’s infrastructure. “We have many opportunities ahead of us as well as a lot of challenges.
As I look around town and the streets and all the things we need to do, we definitely need to begin working these issues,” said Williams. When it came to providing low and moderate-income housing, Williams referred to the recent lots on Cooper Ave., and an improving housing market and hoped more can be done to encourage growth in this area. Weaver suggested building a “big house” to accommodate those having trouble with paying rents and holding down 3-4 jobs. “We’ll figure it out. Otherwise we’ll be like Aspen and have to drive from Bridger and I don’t think that will happen,” said Weaver. In closing statements Williams urged the public to get out and vote.
“The mayor needs to be a leader, with business experience and knowledge and knows how to plan and more importantly to see the plan through to completion. My commitment is to be available to our business community, our residences, guests, whenever there is an issue to be addressed. Join me to keep Red Lodge a great place to live, work and play,” said Williams. “A lot of people know me as Walking Tom,” said Weaver. “I’ve been to college, and almost have a degree, I’ve over 200 credit hours in different things. I went back to school in the 1980s to learn, not to get a degree. I have a profession. I was born in the Pitcher House, my granddad built that big white house and it’s on the historical register.”