Belgrade’s newest City Council member Mike Meis acknowledges that he has “big shoes to fill” as successor to longtime Councilwomen Anne Koentopp, but he is looking forwarding to rapidly conquering the “learning curve” and joining his colleagues to further the welfare of the city.
Interviewed on Monday when he had only one council meeting under his belt (his second was Tuesday), Meis said one of the first critical items facing the new council is securing financing for expansion of the city’s wastewater treatment plant. In December, Belgrade learned that the cost of expanding its sewer treatment system is likely to be much higher than originally estimated, thanks to the increasing prices of concrete and labor.
As a construction manager for NorthWestern Energy, Meis believes his experience in evaluating capital project budgets will be useful as city staff and the council consider their options.
“We all bring a little something different,” Meis said of the six members of City Council. “Hopefully I can bring a little bit of a new flavor.”
In terms of the sewer expansion, Meis said the city will explore additional available funding sources after the final engineering work is completed this spring. Delaying the project is not an option because the system already has reached critical capacity; in order to accommodate development of already approved plats in the city, Belgrade secured a deviance from the state Department of Environmental Quality that will allow the city to treat up to 1.25 million gallons of wastewater per day before the system expansion is finished. The city currently treats about 1 million gallons per day.
“I always have to look at budgets and value-engineer – I do that on a daily basis,” Meis says, adding that while Belgrade may have to consider ways to cut the cost of the new system, he will not be in favor of solutions that save money in the short-term but might end up costing more in operational costs over the long term.
“We need to be smart,” he says.
Meis, 37, calls himself a “Hi-Line kid,” who grew up in Shelby, came to Bozeman to study at MSU, and upon earning his electrical engineering degree chose to remain in the Gallatin Valley. But even during his years as a renter when he lived in various places in Bozeman and Four Corners, Belgrade is “where I wanted to be.” He and his wife Nicole have lived in the same house in northwest Belgrade for 15 years. They have four daughters.
Though Belgrade is often viewed as a bedroom community to Bozeman, Meis believes the city could do a better job promoting itself to outside businesses that are looking for new locations. While fewer than 10,000 people live within the city limits, “our community population is closer to 17,000 if you consider the donut area around Belgrade, which I believe is unique from other areas,” he says. “By recognizing and promoting that, I believe it would entice more retail and service industries into Belgrade.”
Meis’s interest in Belgrade’s business development is nothing new – he campaigned as an advocate for recruiting new businesses to the city, as well as supporting existing ones. He has been involved in that effort in various capacities with the Belgrade Chamber of Commerce, most recently as president (his term ended Dec. 31). He believes numerous factors hinder business growth in the city, including Montana’s liquor license laws that “stifle a lot of growth we could be seeing with restaurants.”
“Trying to have licenses more readily available is a challenge,” he said. “The state has made progress, but more needs to be done.”
To further bolster business, he advocates promoting existing programs such as the city’s revolving loan fund, which helps local companies start up or expand, and the local tax increment financing (TIF) district, through which improvements to lighting, aesthetics, and accessibility can be made to the downtown area to encourage “in-fill” development.
It was Meis’s interest in business and his work with the chamber of commerce that led him to the city council. Among his responsibilities for the chamber was to attend council meetings on a rotating basis as a liaison, and that piqued his interest in the workings of the town’s governing body. He decided to run for the Ward I vacancy after Koentopp announced she would not seek re-election to the seat she had held for 29 years.
Despite his interest in fostering business development, Meis acknowledges that the amount of residential development occurring in the northwest part of the city that Ward I encompasses requires a considerable amount of his attention. He says he favors Belgrade employing a cautious approach when working to provide adequate services to support growth, while still remaining fiscally sound and having a plan to weather the next inevitable recession.
“You want to do things at the speed of value,” he said. “We’ve got to be cautious while we’re expanding.”
Meis notes that while Belgrade’s economy is anchored by three transportation pillars – Interstate 90, the railroad, and Montana’s busiest airport – the city could do a better job addressing other transportation needs such as improved traffic flows, walking/bike paths, and Streamline bus routes. He believes such improvements will build on efforts by the chamber of commerce, Belgrade Community Coalition and downtown business owners in fostering better connectivity and sense of community to Belgrade.
Meis looks forward to working with city staffers, whom he describes as “top-notch,” as well as community leaders such as Chamber Director Kristi Gee and School Superintendent Godfrey Saunders, who signed a three-year contract to remain in his position last week.
He says he faces “a learning curve” as he settles into office, but will lean on veteran fellow council members as he learns the ropes. He is looking forward to an upcoming council retreat to help orient him further, and will serve on the Council’s Disaster Emergency Service and Planning Coordinating committees.
As he posted on his official Facebook site MikeMeisForBelgrade after his installation, “Now the work begins …”