Five Bozeman commission candidates pitched themselves as a person to lead the city through population growth and a rising cost of living in the first candidate forum before the November elections.

Despite Montana’s early winter, it was a packed room in the Bozeman Public Library conference Wednesday for the forum hosted by the Bozeman Business and Professional Women, the League of Women Voters of the Bozeman Area and the library.

Brian LaMeres, a certified public account in the city of Bozeman’s finance department, sat next to Mayor Cyndy Andrus. Both are vying to take the mayoral seat in 2022.

The remaining three — nonprofit worker Zachary Krumm of Tenants United, transportation planner Mark Egge and economic researcher Michael Wallner — hope to get the commission seat that longtime Commissioner Jeff Krauss will leave at the end of this year.

Andrus, 62, touted herself as a person with 10 years of experience on the commission. LaMeres’ selling point held to the fact he’d be a voice similar to the outside position often held by Krauss, who has been known to cast votes separate from the majority.

It’s the second run LaMeres, 52, has made for the job. Chris Mehl, who will begin his term as Mayor in January, defeated the longtime city employee in 2017.

The winner of the mayoral race will serve a two-year stint as deputy mayor before taking the helm of the five-member board.

The dominating question of the evening was how candidates plan to deliver housing that people with middle-to-low wages can afford.

Krumm, 30, said a first step for Bozeman is building public housing, starting with transitional housing for people who are homeless.

“I don’t want just want to make housing accessible, I want to make it a basic right,” Krumm said.

He said he wants to create a tax on vacant houses and homes that people own from out-of-state. Krumm also called for mandatory rental inspections and setting maximum lot sizes so both building and prices get smaller.

Wallner, 32, said the city needs to do more to partner with major employers in Bozeman to create more housing.

“I’m calling on Montana State University to assist the most,” Wallner said. “They’re bringing in a record number of students which is great for our community and Bobcat Nation, but at the same time it’s creating an affordable housing supply and demand issue.”

He also said he wants Bozeman to allow more housing options within what’s already built in town. That would happen through upzoning, changing the zone in a residential area to allow more residencies in one structure. He’s used the example of an aging couple who want to rent out their fully-finished basement.

Both Wallner and Egge said the city’s planning department takes too long to approve building permits, which adds to the final product’s price tag.

Egge, 33, said Bozeman has an affordability crisis that “threatens the fabric of our community.”

He said that stems from the difficulty to build in Bozeman.

“Not only that, but we’ve set the rules in such a way that is skews things in favor of building expensive housing rather than modest housing,” Egge said.

He said first, the planning department should make four weeks a standard for development review.

He said the city also needs to further loosen rules for building accessory dwelling units to create more chances for housing in existing Bozeman neighborhoods, like removing off-street parking requirements or the fact owners need to live on-site.

LaMeres said Bozeman needs to offer housing allowances for workers who struggle to pay Bozeman rates, instead of reserving that for the city’s top-tier employees.

“And getting rid of some layers of management so that, where the housing needs to be constructed, down at the planning department and building inspectors, shift more of that pay down to them so we can the employees around,” Lameres said.

Andrus noted Bozeman has gone through an affordable housing assessment and is in the stage of building its next housing plan — two documents the city recreates every few years.

She said she would continue to support the idea of federal low-income tax credits, which allow developers to raise money for affordable housing projects. She said the credits are primarily used for rentals and listed projects on the way.

“That is a gap in our housing continuum and I think this is something that can help fill that gap,” Andrus said.

Andrus also said she will work toward partnerships with major businesses in town, especially when it comes to finding land for housing.

Each candidate talked about Bozeman’s need to respond to climate change. When parking came up, all on the panel said they would likely support making people pay for downtown parking in order to expand the town’s parking infrastructure.

Every candidate but Egge talked about working with state lawmakers to give Bozeman a chance to create a local option sales tax to give property owners some tax relief. Egge said that’s because every plan tied to his campaign is something city governments can do without state action.

The municipal election is Nov. 5. Ballots will be mailed out Oct. 16.

Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628. Follow her on Twitter @K_Hought.

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