WCR: Richard, welcome to the program.
Richard Hildner: Thank you
WCR: Could you start by telling us a little bit about your background?
Richard Hildner: Yeah, I came to Montana actually as a 12 year old boy to work and play I guess in the North Fork of the Flathead and then I ended up working for the forest service. Went off to the Peace Corps for 2 years. I worked for the forest service for a total of 17. I was a smoke jumper during the…my forest service years and then I stayed home for 6 years as a Mr. Mom. Took care of our 2 children when they were born up through age 6. Spent 2 years in Australia on my former wife had a teacher exchange so we as a family spent a year there and then we spent 9 months camping out for 227 consecutive days going right around Australia. Then I came back, I worked for North Country Builders here in Whitefish in construction for a time and then was finally able to use my teaching credential. I was hired at Flathead High School then moved to Glacier High School when it opened and then retired 3 years ago, just over 3 years ago, from Glacier High School.
WCR: You’ve served on the city council since 2011, why did you first decide to run for city council and why do you want to stay on the council?
Richard Hildner: I started going to city council meetings actually in 1989 and what prompted my attendance at city council meetings was my interest in the Whitefish River and the use of Whitefish River and it became habit forming actually. And I realized that as a citizen I could stand up and speak before the council. It also has given me now as a council member a great appreciation and empathy for those who take the time to come to council members and put it out there and stand up and speak their peace in front of council. So if you’ve, those who’ve ever seen me or watched on television, I hope you’ve noticed that I am absolutely intent on what everyone says when they speak to council because I have been on the opposite side of the dais since as I said 1989 and I think that people who come to council deserve our full and undivided attention for whatever issue it is that they have. So then in 2011 that was the campaign year, I took my seat in January of 2012 and in 2011 as you said, or asked, I decided to run because there were some open seats and I thought it was time for me to take the next step after sitting in the audience for so many years. I thought I had the background and that I could make a different contribution.
WCR: And why do you want to stay on the council?
Richard Hildner: I think there’s some unfinished business, I think there’s some new things we can do. I’m excited about the prospects, I’m excited about the direction that Whitefish has taken. I think this is a fabulous town and I like just being part of it.
WCR: What would you say were your major accomplishments on the council? What are you most proud of?
Richard Hildner: I think there are several things that I’m pleased with. I don’t know if pride should fit in there but I’m pleased, and I guess proud, of several things. One is I think I’m proud of the cooperative nature of council members and their interaction. I think, and I’ve had 2 different councils to work with and we’ve always managed to agree to disagree on certain issues but at the end of the day I think everyone involved in council has been, has taken the interest of the city to heart and has kept the city first and foremost. I’m proudest of the fact that one of the first things that we did as a council in 2012, it was ordinance 12-4 which puts it one of the first things on the agenda was a revision of what was first known as the Critical Areas Ordinance and is now the Whitefish Water Quality Protection Ordinance and we took an ordinance that was 47 pages, many people said it was too much, too complicated, nobody could understand it, and boiled that down to 18 pages which does essentially the same thing as the 47 pages but is much less onerous to the people who need to have that kind of information and I think it adequately protects our water resources.
WCR: Let’s talk about the reconstruction of city hall which has become a bit controversial. Some in the community believe that it would be cheaper and make more sense to relocate the city hall over by the emergency services building. You voted with others on the council to reconstruct it at its current location with a new parking garage. Why did you decide to vote that way rather than relocate the city hall?
Richard Hildner: I think there’s several considerations. I was on council when we looked at, made the final look at all the possibilities. I was sitting in the audience when previous possibilities for locations came up, one north of the library for example, the bank building on Spokane came up, emergency services came up, the present location of city hall also came up. And when everything was considered and taking all of the possibilities under consideration it became obvious to me that the current location, including the need for a parking garage, was the proper location. It was a piece of property that the city already owned, it was a piece of property that no one had ever come and said we’d like to buy it from the city. I think that the inclusion of city hall with a parking garage meets several needs. One is the need for a new city hall; I don’t think anyone would deny that need. The need for a new parking garage; we’re gonna have about 220 parking spaces there. That will really free up a lot of parking on Central Avenue and that is an economic driver. Nationally, a parking space in front of your business would contribute about a quarter of a million dollars in revenue per year per space. That is a big chunk of money. Of course, Whitefish may not have those exact same numbers but I think it’s a revealing number. I think that economically, the smart choice is the current location and I think that, not think, I know that the city is committed to a building that we can all be proud of, that’s constructed on or under budget and on time.
WCR: Late in the process those opposed to the city hall decision called for a public referendum on the issue. You’re opposed to a referendum, why is that?
Richard Hildner: I opposed the referendum because I thought it was too late and it was too restrictive in its nature. The language of the proposed referendum said we could not, the city, could not occupy a building that had been…on which $3 million dollars or more had been spent. It did not restrict the building the building so we were going to go ahead and build the building and then if there had been a referendum it would have said, well, the voters decide whether or not you move in. That’s…that horse has already left the barn by then and I think that the time to object to the city hall was during all of the public hearings we had while we considered where to build the building and everyone had a good opportunity to speak and the overwhelming opinion of the people who testified at city council meetings and at other meetings, scoping meetings, said, that’s what we want to do, this is the place for it.
WCR: So on the issue of public comment, public meetings, people lead busy lives and aren’t usually checking the local paper for notices about public meetings and workshops and don’t necessarily have time to attend even if they were aware of them. Mayre Flowers with Citizens for a Better Flathead recently called on the council to improve its public notice process to a high level of excellence and fairness. For those who don’t read the papers for public notices, what other ways can we generate awareness of these meetings and for those who are aware but don’t have the time to attend, what alternative ways can they participate in city decisions?
Richard Hildner: Short of flying banners behind airplanes, I think it’s sometimes really difficult to inform the public of what’s going on. From the earliest times in history, one of the considerations has been an informed electorate. It then becomes the responsibility of the electorate to be informed. Those who have the public trust also have the responsibility to get out the word on issues that are coming before the council. One of my greatest pleasures and joys really as a counselor, a sitting counselor is to receive telephone calls or people stop me on the street and say, hey what’s going on. I think that’s not a bad way to do that. I think that the internet is, and emails are one way. In the last 4 years the city has improved its website. I think that there are some things that we might be able to do on the website to allow people to give voice, through some kind of a link perhaps. I think that it’s also incumbent on the electorate to read the paper, to listen to the radio, all forms of radio, and then attend. The citizens’ forum, or not the citizens, but the community forum, the candidate’s forum that was held on the 30th of September, it was by some accounts, well attended. I think that more than 30 people should attend to listen to the council candidates speak their minds.
WCR: Water quality in Whitefish Lake is a concern for most residents and I understand that leaks from septic systems around the lake are a major contributor to water quality problems. There is currently some engineering analysis being completed about the options for addressing this, but what actions would you like to see to address it?
Richard Hildner: Well I think the first thing is as you mentioned the engineering analysis to find out exactly where and what those problems are. The Whitefish Lake Institute has identified certain hot spots around the lake. The folks at Lion Mountain for example, they are aware that that is a major area of concern. I think that there’s some things that we can do immediately. It may be an extension of services but then you have to wonder who’s going to pay for the extension of services, i.e. water and sewer. I think that also I would like to see, county wide, some requirement for septic inspections anytime a building permit is taken out but the county doesn’t have really a strong building permit system. But any change that people have to their structures along the lake for example I think should require an inspection of septic tanks. The reason being is that the septic tank that may have been fine for a family cottage along the lake or cabin along the lake is not adequate for a multi-family or a multi-bathroom facility along the lake. There are very few houses along the lake that have one flush toilet and one shower. It’s just not there anymore but that was the size of the septic tank and I think that we need to take a look at that and we need to find some mechanism to make it happen and it will take some leadership in the county to make get that done.
WCR: I want to ask about the county in a bit but it was mentioned during the recent candidate forum that you had mentioned that they city’s waste treatment facility needs a $10 million upgrade. What is the upgrade for and how will it be paid for?
Richard Hildner: The upgrade is going to be the, or is the result of point source pollution reductions required by the federal government. The major pollution sources around Whitefish are not point source but yet we have to reduce by a certain percentage fairly soon in order to comply with federal regulations and mandates. As a result, we are engaged now in the preliminary engineering surveys to determine what we can do and what we must do. That will come down the pike probably within the next 3 years. The high number is $20 million and the low figure is $10 million. Where do we come up with that? We will have to do several things, but the bottom line is that the cost for wastewater treatment will go up and taxpayers will see that on their tax bills and that’s not something we can duck or avoid or shirk. So, what does the city council have to do? And I think that the current council has taken some steps to increase our balance, that is our reserve funds in each budget. We’re moving, I think it was 8% when I first came on council, which was much lower than I think anyone wanted but was necessary during the recession. We’ve increased it to 10% and in this last budget it goes to about 12, 12.5%. I would like to see that number go up to about 15% over time but that will help soften the blow when it comes time to pay for those improvements that we really can’t avoid.
WCR: Following adoption of the Critical Areas Ordinance in 2008 the city and the county engaged in a 6 year battle that eventually led to the Montana Supreme Court awarding the county jurisdiction over regulating development in the so called “doughnut” areas adjacent to the city boundaries. How much does this set back the city’s ability to ensure the protection of Whitefish Lake’s water quality?
Richard Hildner: I don’t think it really sets it back, but it does require continued vigilance on the part of the city and really of the county. One of the unfortunate outcomes was the loss of the Whitefish Lake Protection Committee that was made up of both county and city representatives. We now have a Whitefish Lake Protection Committee but it can only deal with issues inside the city limits. This then leaves someone who wants to do something along Whitefish Lake, if they live in the county, they have 2 jurisdictions to work with because the county will deal with everything along the shoreline and the city will deal with everything below the low water mark. Because the city, within the city is the bed of Whitefish Lake and therein comes the rub and I think that’s one of the unfortunate outcomes of the contentious issues between the city and the county. The thing I would like to make sure that everyone understands and that is that just because people live inside Whitefish, doesn’t mean they aren’t members of Flathead County. We’re all in this together, we’re all members of Flathead County. We just happen to be in Whitefish, one of 3 incorporated cities within the county.
WCR: Do you feel there were any mistakes in how the City handled the issue with the County and how it might have been handled differently?
Richard Hildner: Yes. Because I was, right from the get-go, involved in this. It was long before I was on city council; however, I was at the, I attended several of the city-county meetings, committee meetings, when the issues between the 2 entities were discussed and the effort to find a way to deal with that particular issue. But, it’s interesting to note that the county never held a single, formal hearing. They had meetings, but no formal hearings. The city on the other hand, held 2 public hearings. At both of those public hearings no city resident spoke in favor of the re-negotiated agreement between the city and the county. I think what could have happened was that instead of the city council that was sitting at the time going ahead and saying this is what we’re going to do anyway, they could have said, wow, our constituents in the city of Whitefish don’t care for this particular agreement, it needs more work. And to see if then they could have taken it back and re-worked it. But then that left us with no alternative, well I guess there were some alternatives, but I thought it was important and I thought the right thing was when the citizens took the initiative to create, and this is a case for a referendum, when you disagree with the action of your elected officials, who voted unanimously, to approve the agreement. No I take that back, it was not a unanimous agreement vote by council but nonetheless the council went ahead and took that action.
WCR: What are your ideas for trying to mend relations with the County and achieve a better working relationship over the doughnut issue?
Richard Hildner: I think that we need to, on both sides, whenever we see the opportunity, extend that olive brance of cooperation. I think that there are some things that we can do as the county moves towards its own zoning and changes in zoning. Their compliance or to stay with the Whitefish extraterritorial zoning as best they can is a major step whenever we come to those disagreements I think we need to sit down and talk about that. I think a good example of the opportunities afforded to us was at the last city council meeting when 2 meetings before we had sent a letter, authorized a letter by the mayor to go to the county about the 200 foot setbacks versus, that the city would have had in, I think its first creek in Haskill Basin and the county said no, we’re going to stick with our 20 feet. We had prepared a resolution to re-affirm that 200 foot setback and the mayor said I have talked to the county, the county is willing to sit down and have a discussion and we withdrew that resolution in an effort to have a dialog with the county and I think that’s the kind of thing we need to continue to do.
WCR: Earlier this year we had a successful vote on the funding for conserving Haskill Basin. Another conservation effort has been announced involving Plum Creek lands in the Lazy Creek drainage north of the lake. Do you believe this will also require city funding and, if so, what are your thoughts about it?
Richard Hildner: I don’t think it’ll require any city funding. It’s a separate deal but it’s certainly something that we have also sent a letter in support of because if you stop to think about Lazy Creek, Swift Creek, those are tributaries to Whitefish Lake and as I’ve said publically many times before, as goes the lake, so goes Whitefish. And it is, I think, in the city’s interest to support conservation easements in our watersheds and while Haskill Creek and Haskill Basin provides about 90% of our water, that’s surface water, the lake provides about 10% of our water needs and we need to protect the water that’s coming in because we drink it.
WCR: There’s currently around $4 million in unallocated Tax Increment Financing or TIF funds that need to be spent by 2020 or it’ll be lost. First, since you’re our first interviewee, could you explain what TIF funds are, and then could you explain what types of projects you would like to see the funds spent on?
Richard Hildner: I don’t think I have enough time in this interview to explain TIF, but in a nutshell, TIF is Tax Increment Funds and those are funds that are collected in lieu of some other taxing…other taxing alternatives and what it does is allows the city to collect taxes for infrastructure and improvements to increase the future tax base within a defined TIF district. Now, if that doesn’t confuse everyone, let me just say that those TIF monies, we started in 1986 I think it was…’86 or ‘89 and they build very, very slowly, but just as your own savings account starts to multiply over time, the TIF monies have multiplied over time which now allows us to build a new city hall and parking structure without any cost, tax increase cost, to the taxpayer. This means then that that kind of capital improvement in downtown designed to improve the economic viability of our downtown that is the commercial business district. The high school is also included in part of the TIF district and that’s how we were able to give 2 and a half million dollars, or authorize spending 2 and a half million dollars on the new high school. So once this new city hall and parking garage are complete, TIF monies will continue to come in to the city coffers and we will finish the city hall parking garage in about 18 months, 18 to 24 months. And then more money will be coming in to the TIF, to that tune of about $4 million by the time the TIF expires in 2020. The question you asked is how are we going to spend it, to get back to that. We have a list, and I didn’t bring it with me, of projects that’s always being reviewed about what are our priorities and those priorities obviously are always changing as we see some opportunities. There may be some opportunities at the old hospital site for some re-development if the purchaser needs that. There may be some opportunities at the old Idaho Timber site if the purchaser, it’s up for sale again, but if a new purchaser says, I have some ideas this is maybe what we can do. TIF could also be used I believe, to help us solve part of the affordable housing, or workforce, affordable workforce housing issue in Whitefish. $4 million isn’t going to solve that but it could, a portion of that could move us along and I suspect you’re going to have an affordable question coming up. Have I answered that…?
WCR: Yes, that’s great
Richard Hildner: I want to make sure that I’m getting there.
WCR: Yeah you’re doing great. The downtown master plan envisions…excuse, me, earlier this year the council adopted the Revised Downtown Master Plan. You’ve mentioned that you don’t want Whitefish to become another Aspen or Vail. What actions does the city need to take to avoid that and do you believe the Downtown Master Plan supports that vision?
Richard Hildner: I do believe that the downtown master plan supports that vision. The district we’re sitting in, the old Railway District, right now for example, has that certain funkiness that I think we have come to expect in Whitefish and that I would like to see continued. I think that it’s important that we not have cookie cutter stores. We’ve gone a long ways to, in the downtown core to not permit formula businesses and I think that’s a real strength. I think that anytime someone is going to try to put together something in the downtown core, according to the master plan, the architectural review committee is going to play an important part there to make sure that while things are consistent with the architectural styles and designs and to use this term, vernacular of Whitefish, I think that gets over used a little bit but there it is, and it’ll have public scrutiny and review and I think that’s what really is going to continue to make Whitefish the great place that it is.
WCR: So on a specific on the Downtown Master Plan, it envisions a “boutique” hotel along 1st street between Baker and Central Ave. One of the things, as you were talking about, that people like about downtown is that it is vibrant and serves locals as much as tourists. Does encouraging a hotel in the center of downtown jeopardize the character and “grit” of Whitefish?
Richard Hildner: I don’t think so, but I think with the hotel that’s now on, going in on Spokane and 2nd the viability of a boutique, whatever a boutique hotel is and I keep asking the developers please define that and every time I ask it I get a different answer. But, that being said, the hotel downtown or some other viable business, as long as it contributes to the economic viability, and I think a hotel might, but I don’t see it happening right away. I think that it’s important that we continue to keep track of what’s going on downtown and the downtown master plan is designed to make sure that we don’t take a left turn when we should have turned right.
WCR: The Downtown Master Plan envisions enhanced mixed use and pedestrian friendly development but this contrasts sharply with the more sprawling, vehicle oriented development south of town along the highway. Do you support the city acting in the future to bring more mixed-use, pedestrian friendly development to the rest of the city so that sprawl doesn’t undermine what we have in our downtown core?
Richard Hildner: I, well I’m a strong advocate for non-motorized travel within the city and anything we can do to expand our bike and pedestrian paths, that always gets my full support. I think several things that we can continue to do is, whenever we see the opportunity to expand our bike paths, whether it’s 93 South or if it’s 93 North, West, whichever direction you want to call that, then I think we should support that. I think the construction of skye park bridge, I’ve been a long term and long-time advocate of the skye park bridge, we’re going to see that bridge get set in place next week. I think we’ll see it open for business by the end of November.
WCR: Where’s this at?
Richard: That crosses the Whitefish River just upstream from the railroad trestle and just down from the outlet. That will allow folks on the south and west side of the Whitefish River to access all of downtown and City Beach without ever getting onto the highway. The construction, the new construction of highway 93 west, we put in the design an 11 foot wide shared bicycle-pedestrian path. That’s why it’s 11 feet wide on that side of the road. That also allows people to travel back and forth without ever having to get in a car. If you look at the Whitefish Lake, excuse me, Whitefish Golf Club restaurant, Doug offers incentive to his employees to use, or to leave their cars at home and to walk or ride their bicycles and he tells me that their employees love that. Now it’s going to be even easier for employees to take advantage of those incentives. If you look at development there are 2 developments, one’s complete now and another one coming up by Mindful Designs that will have increased density close to the downtown core. That will connect to our bike paths. That’s the way we keep a vital downtown is where people can get downtown easily by alternate, or alternative means of transportation. I’m going to continue here because this is an interesting, one of my passions and I think we have to make it safe for our kids to get back and forth to school on their bicycles, whether it be in the middle school, the high school, or the elementary school. And those, kids and parents ride to school days, if you ever go out to the school on those days, the bike lot is absolutely chok-a-blok full and I would like to see it that way every day, not just on those special ride days.
WCR: Speaking of transportation issues, Eagle Transit, run by the county has both a commuter bus from Whitefish to Kalispell and also a city bus that runs on very limited hours within Whitefish. Is there more the city can do to either help finance that so it can grow or help publicize that and make more people aware of it because most people aren’t aware that bus system exists in the city?
Richard Hildner: We need to do more and I’m not prepared to say exactly what the city can or can’t do for bus transportation within the city. I’m going to step out on a limb and say I’m probably the only person running for city council who has ever used Eagle Transit as a commuter. When I taught at Glacier High School I sometimes would ride my bike to the bus stop, put my bike on the bus, ride to Kalispell, get off by Glacier High School, pedal a mile over to the high school, teach all day and get back on the bus at 5:00 and come home. At $4 a gallon for gasoline, I was probably saving $3 a gallon. I know I was saving quite a bit of money and I think it’s the economic incentive. It will cost money. It’s interesting to see what’s happened in a big city like Missoula where they have free bus service and they have increased their ridership, they have increased the frequency of their busses and it has decreased the dependency on downtown parking. Our downtown master plan calls for 2 parking garages. If we can improve the traffic circulation, i.e. the use of public transportation, then perhaps we can avoid building that second parking garage sometime in the future.
WCR: To the workforce housing question. It has become an important issue in this election; but it’s not a new issue to Whitefish, it’s been frequently brought up in the past with elections and little progress has been made at this point. How do we go from talk to action on this issue and do you have any ideas that you would bring to the council if re-elected?
Richard Hildner: You’re right. We’ve talked around it and about it for a long time and we’ve done nothing to improve the situation minus a few minor adjustments and some contributions to the Whitefish Housing Authority. We need to do more and I believe that there are some possibilities. I think that the use of density bonuses, when a developer comes in and says I’ll provide 10% of my development in affordable housing if you’ll give me a 50% increase in the total density. We’ve had that on the books for a long, long time. No one has ever taken advantage of it. Every time they’ve talked about it, they’ve withdrawn their proposal. I think we may be getting to the point where it becomes obligatory that if you’re gonna have a major development you have to provide X number of workforce housing units. That’s one thing that we can do. There may be a possibility to use some of that $4 million dollars in TIF to purchase lands that are now vacant and then come into some kind of an agreement with a developer to develop the homes for our workforce housing. I think it’s important to make a distinction between low-income housing, affordable housing, and affordable workforce housing. Those are really almost 3 distinctly different issues. The big issue for the vitality, right now, in Whitefish is to allow our workers, and I’m talking about those employees who work for the school district, who work for our medical clinics, work for the hospital, police, fire…those professionals who would love to live and work in Whitefish but can’t afford that starter home, we need to find a way to get them settled. And I think, well my preference would be homes. Apartments are great, homes are also, but I think part of what makes our Whitefish neighborhoods, neighborhoods. In the long-term, there’s going to have to be a working relationship with developers, with contractors and with the city to come up with that solution. I’m glad to see the Chamber of Commerce taking the lead and they know that they have my full support.
WCR: What are some of things the city council can do to bring jobs which can help diversify our economy outside of the tourism industry?
Richard Hildner: It is somewhat difficult because the city cannot…we can encourage people to come and bring their businesses with them. We have very limited industrial space within city limits. The old site at the Idaho Timber is one of those. We had a, there was a plan some years ago before I was on city council for an industrial park off of east Edgewood, between east Edgewood and Second along the railroad tracks. Unfortunately that fell on hard times along with recessionary implications. We should also be encouraging, I think, the medical-senior living community. By that I mean that there is a great opportunity here for developing a…some campuses, or a campus, that would support senior living. And I’m talking about affordable senior living not expensive, some point in life might have to leave their homes and go to an assisted living facility at some level but they can still get together and have a cup of coffee, visit, tell stories. And then, maybe even walk to town or because if you, I envision the possibility of a senior campus at the old Idaho Timber site for example and those folks could now walk to town on the paths from skye then cross over at skye park bridge or ride their tricycles or whatever it’s gonna be. I just see that there’s some real excitement that could be generated by that.
WCR: Cities across Montana, including Billings, Bozeman, Helena and Missoula, have adopted climate action plans to evaluate their contribution to climate change, and to devise goals by which they plan to become “carbon neutral.” Would you support a locally crafted climate action plan for the city?
Richard Hildner: I would. I think it would take a lot of work, but I think it only makes sense. I just received something from Flathead Electric in our last bill that said, hey do you want to buy a solar panel, you can…and I realized that the payoff is 25 years down the road. Well, I can’t take that with me, I’m getting too old and they said no, no you can take that with you! And I think that what a responsible community does is finds ways within its community to contribute, however small, to the broader objective and the broader objective, the broadest objective is to protect the planet. And, but all of that has to start at home. All politics is local, that’s what Tip O’Neill said and I believe that’s true so if we want to affect change, we can’t expect somebody else to do it. We have to do it ourselves, we have to be responsible citizens. We have to pick up after our pets for example. Well, let’s be responsible about our environment as well. So yes, I would, whole-heartedly and I’d be the first one to sign up for that panel.
WCR: Last question for you. How would you differentiate yourself from the other candidates running for city council?
Richard Hildner: I think all of the candidates for city council have the best interests of Whitefish at heart. When I listened to the answers at the candidates’ forum we were all pretty much in agreement. My experience on city council tells me that almost all votes, there are some notable exceptions, but almost all votes of all councils have been unanimous because we’re doing our best for the city. To differentiate myself from the others, I think you’d have to say I have, number 1, experience, I have…and others, Frank Sweeny will have the same experience or perhaps even more experience on council than I but I have long experience of both sides of the council dais. I think I have my education to rely on as a former government teacher about how the process works. I think every one of us is approachable and I would like to think that I’m approachable as well. I think my record of keeping Whitefish first speaks, hopefully, for itself and I would differentiate myself in that regard. That I sincerely think that we live in one of the, if not the best place in the world. And I’ve seen a lot of them.
WCR: Well Richard, thank you so much for your service and also for coming on the program and speaking with us.
Richard Hildner: This has been a great experience, I really enjoyed it. But I enjoy doing this kind of thing too so thanks a lot!