Candidate Questionnaire: Mary Sheehy Moe


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Mary Sheehy Moe

Age: 67

Occupation: Education, Retired

Family: One husband, 3 children, 5 grandchildren (so far)

Brief background/experience that’s relevant to City Commission:

  • Extensive direct experience with conducting the public’s business on government bodies, having been appointed, elected to, or hired to staff a local government study commission, the Montana Board of Regents, the State Workforce Investment Board, Montana’s Teacher Certification and Standards Advisory Council, the Lewis & Clark Library Board, one Board of Public Education task force, two Office of Public Instruction task forces, the local school board, Mansfield Center for the Performing Arts, and the state legislature.
  • Extensive direct experience helping to develop and manage large, complex public budgets for Helena’s library board, our local school board, Great Falls College MSU, the Montana University System, and the State of Montana.
  • Extensive direct experience with strategic planning for government and non-government entities.

Q: What is your view on privatization of services currently being provided?

A: The primary obligation of city government is to provide for the safety and security of the community. I don’t believe services related to that obligation – police, fire – should be privatized. City government must be directly involved in and responsible for services related to this primary obligation. For other city services, I’d have to hear the arguments for and against privatization, but if a private business can provide a service more economically to our citizens and just as accountably and effectively, I’m interested in hearing the pitch.

Q:  Do you support the continued operation of the Natatorium or other indoor municipal swimming facility?

A: Yes.

Q: Most people don’t like increasing taxes or fees for services. Do you believe the city fees for service should increase as costs increase? 

A: Yes. The external pressure of cost increases affects the city the same as it does any other enterprise. Not to adjust what few fees you can as a commissioner puts the city in an increasingly untenable position. Inadequately funded services are a disservice to the community.

Q: Given the limited resources available, which one of these would you identify as your top priority: funding mental health and addiction treatment programs, hiring more police officers, or improving community relations with the existing police force?

A: There are three problems with this question:

Our current limited resources are presented as a given that must continue. Rather than trying to find new ways to re-slice a small pie, I believe that we must grow the pie. My message throughout the campaign is that, until we commit to a strategic vision for economic growth, we will keep arguing about how to slice up pieces that do not meet our needs – or tap our potential – as a community.

Funding mental health and addiction treatment programs is not a function of city government. As we are currently realizing, not funding these services at the state level will have consequences for city resources, especially in law enforcement, but there is no local resolution for that problem, so there’s no point in my prioritizing it.

Of the two remaining choices, I do not see improving community/police relations as a distinct choice from hiring more police officers. Effective policing is inseparable from and highly dependent upon the police’s good relationship with the community. Every police officer is engaged in community relations all the time. Could the police do more in the area of community relations if they were not dealing with a rise in crimes related to increased drug activity? Yes. But I am impressed with how well they do, given the demands on their time. Their interactions with neighborhood councils and with the Downtown Safety Committee are cases in point.

Q: If you are elected, how will you ensure that neighborhoods look and feel safe and how will you measure success?

A: Let me start with measurement. I think the best measure of how neighborhoods are doing is feedback from our neighborhood councils, amplified by police and fire data. The issue of safety is experienced differently in each neighborhood. Five of the nine neighborhood councils tell me their safety concerns are few and generally traffic-related. That is not to minimize traffic concerns because as Neighborhood 3 experienced last summer, the lack of arterial roads and the narrowness of those that do exist there posed a safety issue during last summer’s fire.

Four other neighborhoods have concerns that go beyond traffic. Neighborhood 2 is feeling a greater presence of the drug trade and has concerns about the lack of streetlights and one particular crosswalk without a light. For Neighborhood 6, the street layout itself is a safety issue, slowing police and fire access. There are also issues that I think of more as nuisances than safety issues, but they could be classified as either: dumpster-“borrowing” and unkempt, junk-filled properties. Neighborhood 7 has perhaps the heaviest safety concerns, centered as it is downtown. I’ve been very impressed with the specific strategies designed by the Downtown Safety Committee to address those concerns. Neighborhood 9 has its age-old nuisance/safety issues related to the proximity of Great Falls High School.

The strategic approach to downtown safety used by Neighborhood 7 might be customized to address safety issues neighborhood by neighborhood, with reporting-out on an annual basis that ties their reports to police and fire data. That would give the commission ongoing data, not only from police, but also on the ground in the neighborhoods. It would have the auxiliary benefit of reinforcing the role of our neighborhood councils.

Q: What do you think the role of the city commission should be in economic development and do you believe a more active role could create conflicts of interest when it comes to annexation, zoning or tax incentive votes that would require commission approval?

A: I don’t believe in sitting around and stagnating, waiting for our economy to get better so our resources aren’t limited and our services can be improved. Good luck doesn’t just happen; you position yourself to seize it. The key stories that shaped my life are stories of being dealt a bad hand and maximizing the opportunities of the cards you’re dealt. I’m running for this office because I believe it’s time we do that as a community. Past time.

As community leaders, the city commission should play a leadership role in the only thing that can reduce tax burdens, improve services, and create growth in Great Falls: economic development.  My platform planks “Deploying Our Assets” and “Engaging New Leaders” at moe4citycommission.com outline that leadership role in far more detail than space allows here.

I believe the city commission needs to engage other economic development entities in a community vision for economic development. One byproduct of that vision will be to define the role city commissioners play in working toward that vision. Clearly, commissioners must distance themselves from any project that will ultimately come before them for zoning or other regulatory decisions. As a commission, they should also make sure that the strategic vision includes plans for appropriate police, fire, traffic, infrastructure (water, sewer, storm water), and green space.

Q: Some have suggested Great Falls needs to grow and attract more people to town and also companies offering higher-paying wages. Do you have any concern that rapid growth or an influx of higher-paying jobs would lead to increased housing costs and increased cost of living and traffic, like what’s been seen in Bozeman and Missoula? Why or why not, and could those issues be mitigated?

A: Again, a core message of my campaign has been that we need to work together as a community to stimulate growth in our economy and community. The primary catalyst for the influx of jobs in Bozeman and Missoula has been the university in each town, with the spin-off potential universities have for research and innovation. That’s unlikely to happen here, but we do have assets to deploy and others we should spiff up so that we position ourselves to capitalize on opportunities. (See my platform plank “Deploying Our Assets” on moe4citycommission.com.)

We often seem to be looking longingly for one giant employer, one kind of defining presence like ECP or the Anaconda Company, and after what we’ve experienced with both, I’m reluctant to be so dependent on one employer or industry. But there’s a community conversation to be had here and an action plan to follow it. It’s a fun conversation to have and an exciting course of action to pursue, and I have no preconceived notion of where we’ll end up. The only thing I know for sure is that we have to get moving on that conversation. The passage of the economic development levy would be an ideal kick-start for it, because with public monies involved, the public should have a far greater role in ensuring smart, sustainable growth in Great Falls.

Q: The city has 57 parks. Some consider the park system as an asset in recruiting businesses, new residents and tourists. Others have suggested selling parks to reduce maintenance costs. Since the funds from park sales must go back into the park and rec department, do you support the sale of any city parks?

A: Ask Neighborhood Council 3: Everybody thinks it’s a good idea to sell a park until it’s your neighborhood park that’s on the auction block. However, if we can’t maintain our parks well enough to ensure the safety of people who use them and to preserve their value as a city asset, we will have to sell them.

I don’t want to see that. I believe our parks are not only an asset for recruiting businesses, the millennial workforce, and tourists but also affordable, accessible places for every citizen to recreate. They provide common ground, literally and figuratively. Like many grandparents in town, I love taking my grandchildren to the parks, and they love being there. Looking around, I see people of all ages and incomes enjoying what our parks have to offer them – for free. And that’s the way it should be.

Q: State law allows the city to impose a mill levy sufficient to generate the amount of property taxes annually assessed in the prior year plus one-half of the average rate of inflation for the prior three years. In recent years, city departments have been asked to reduce their budgets, which can mean a reduction in services for citizens. What is your opinion of the utilization of the inflationary factor and for what reasons would you impose or not impose the increased tax?

A: This question gets at the same issue as Question No. 3. Cost-of-living increases are not imaginary things. They’re a fact of life, and just as cost-of-living increases affect household and business budgets, they affect city budgets. The law does not allow the city to capture the full cost-of-living increase, only half of it, so the city already has to “absorb” (reduce services) half of cost-of-living increases out of funds that most people agree are not sufficient to fund our core services. In any given year, the amount raised through this assessment is small and the change in your taxes is also small – less than $2 this year, I figure.  But over time, continuing to “absorb” these externally imposed increases creates a structural imbalance that will require going to the voters for a significant increase. So, yes, the assessment should be utilized when the cost of doing the city’s work has increased. The current city commission recently voted to approve one without a “no” vote, and they were right to do so.

Q: How do you think the city should balance flexibility in working with business development and ensuring the city’s interests are protected from development that might not have a positive effect in the city?

A: This is a free country. The city has no authority to decide which businesses are “worthy” and which are not. Its permitting role is strictly limited to zoning, design review (for commercial properties only), and building codes.

Once again, though, the city commission can be – and should be – much more active in engaging the community, especially the business community, in a vision for economic development in Great Falls. Such a vision, with an action plan as a byproduct, lays the groundwork and sends a message about the kinds of development Great Falls is interested in pursuing. Passage of the economic development levy would allow us as a community and county to back that vision and message with financial incentives for desirable business growth in Great Falls.

Q: Neighborhood councils were created by a public vote in 1996 after a public review of the city’s form of government. Two decades ago people [were concerned] that city government could be inaccessible and the councils were created as a stepping stone. Today, council meetings often have poor attendance. How would you make better use of the Neighborhood Council system?

A: I found attending neighborhood council meetings helpful, in this campaign as in previous ones, but it wasn’t a good way to get an overall view of neighborhood issues. So in the last few weeks, I’ve interviewed each council’s chair. It’s been one of the most valuable exercises of my campaign in terms of gaining insights. Here’s what I know:

There’s a high quality of leadership on the neighborhood councils and all of them take their work seriously. They are very knowledgeable about the issues in their neighborhood and are a great source of information not only for commissioners, but also for people in the neighborhoods themselves.

Each neighborhood is unique, so a one-size-fits-all approach is not going to work to increase engagement city-wide. NC 5 has really impressive engagement, which its chair attributes to (a) its elderly/retired demographic, (b) his efforts to have interesting content at each meeting, and (c) a strong communication tree. These neighbors clearly enjoy their meetings, their leadership, and their time with one another. Other neighborhoods are mainly populated by parents of school-age children. It’s much harder to get them to a meeting, and, having been a working mother trying to get kids fed and bathed and some housework done, I can understand why going to a meeting at 7 p.m. is not appealing. The fact remains that when hot-button issues arise, the neighborhood council is a good place to get a first reading on the issue and to weigh in on something in a less intimidating setting than a commission meeting. For that purpose alone, the councils are invaluable.

I don’t think getting more people at neighborhood council meetings should be the commission’s key objective. Rather, I think the commission should give the councils a clearer sense of purpose, a longer view of their role than meeting-to-meeting, and a more interactive relationship with the commission itself. It would be good for the commission and the councils to meet once a year and agree upon key initiatives – the safety one, mentioned earlier, for instance – that each council is going to work on and report out on at the end of the year, with the councils encouraged to call on city personnel to address this initiative or that one, as needed. Mayor Kelly has instituted a regular reporting mechanism for each neighborhood to have time with the commission in a work session, which has been well-received. Adding a little more structure to council work and feedback to and from the commission would make both bodies more effective.