Billings crime lab

Forensic scientist Misty Icard demonstrates how she uses a color test on substances in the Billings crime lab on Wednesday. Icard is one of three employees of the lab, which opened in May 2016.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

A new state crime lab in Billings that opened a little more than a year ago to help with an almost tripling of local drug possession cases could soon close.

And plans to open a new state morgue in Billings to provide needed storage space and save Yellowstone County money could be scrapped.

That’s if proposed budget cuts the Department of Justice and other agencies laid out last week are finalized. The cuts of up to 10 percent of general fund budgets have been requested in response to lower-than-expected revenues.

A spokesman for the DOJ said the department is hopeful the full cuts won’t go through.

“The plan we submitted represents the worst-case scenario, if required to cut the full 10 percent of general fund dollars from our budget,” Eric Sell, a spokesman for the department, said in a statement to Lee Newspapers. “If these cuts go into effect, it will clearly have a negative impact on the services we provide to the people of Montana.”

General fund money accounts for a third of the DOJ’s annual $100 million budget. So the proposed cuts would be a little more than 3 percent of the department's total budget, or $6.9 million for the current two-year budget cycle. 

Sell said the department would work to find special revenue funds to plug any holes created by the proposed general fund cuts.

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Billings crime lab

Forensic scientist Misty Icard demonstrates how she analyzes the results from the GC/MS, or gas chromatography/mass spectrometry machine, in the Billings crime lab on Wednesday. Icard is one of three employees of the lab, which opened in May 2016.

Two legislative committees will meet first to discuss revenue and spending reduction recommendations, and on Sept. 26, Gov. Steve Bullock will begin reviewing the proposed cuts. If the Legislature does not convene a special session to implement new taxes or find other areas to cut, the governor will decide how to make enough cuts to save at least $226 million in the current biennium.

If the Billings crime lab did close, the staff would be consolidated with the Missoula office, the department said. Sell, the DOJ spokesman, said the three Billings employees would likely get to choose whether to move to Missoula to keep their jobs, but those details are yet to be worked out. The chief medical examiner for the state would be moved from Billings to Missoula if the cuts go through.

In addition to scrapping the Billings crime lab and planned morgue, the Department of Justice would also have to cut or eliminate misconduct investigations for law enforcement officers; reduce grants that fund child pornography investigations; cease crime lab analysis of property crime evidence; and leave vacant positions in three DOJ divisions unfilled, increasing wait times for customers at the Division of Motor Vehicles, among other areas.

The proposed cuts would also shift the cost of DUI, toxicology and urine analysis kits to local agencies. Currently, the DOJ covers those costs for local law enforcement. The Department of Public Health and Human Services, the state’s biggest agency and the hardest-hit under the lasted proposed cuts, would have to foot the bill for hair sample testing for drug-endangered children.

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Billings crime lab

Forensic scientist Misty Icard demonstrates the GC/MS, or gas chromatography/mass spectrometry machine, in the Billings crime lab on Wednesday. Icard is one of three employees of the lab, which opened in May 2016.

The satellite crime lab in Billings opened in May of 2016 after complaints that long turnaround times at the Missoula lab were slowing down prosecutions.

Law enforcement, prosecutors and lawmakers heralded the new lab’s opening as a way to deal with a spike in meth and other drug abuse in the Billings area. Yellowstone County saw 198 drug possession cases in 2012 and 546 in 2016.

The lab helps Eastern Montana, too. Evidence is either mailed or driven to the crime labs, so having one in Billings meant not only more staff to handle the workload, but reduced travel times for law enforcement agencies as well.

In the roughly year and half the Billings lab has been open, it's stayed busy, processing 415 cases in the last half of 2016. 

Local officials say if the Billings lab did close, it would put a pinch on county finances. 

"Needless to say that any closure of the crime lab in Billings would have a very material and negative impact on our county’s finances, and would be a shortsighted decision that passes even more state responsibilities back to local government," said Kevan Bryan, Yellowstone County finance director.

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Billings crime lab

Forensic scientist Misty Icard demonstrates how she manually inserts a sample into the GC/MS, or gas chromatography/mass spectrometry machine, in the Billings crime lab on Wednesday. Icard is one of three employees of the lab, which opened in May 2016.

Scrapping plans for the new morgue would be another setback in efforts to ease pressure on an overtaxed justice system. Officials are still in the planning stage for the Billings morgue, with a request for proposals currently out. The Legislature set aside $800,000 for the project this spring, and Yellowstone County would pay $150,000.

The morgue is needed to create new storage space for bodies awaiting autopsies. Currently, taxpayers must pay for storing up to three bodies at St. Vincent's Healthcare. When that's full, area funeral homes store the bodies. 

County Attorney Scott Twito estimated the new morgue would save the county $50,000 a year in transportation and storage fees.

The Justice Department would also have to reduce or eliminate officer misconduct investigations. One such investigation this year found that an employee at the Montana Women’s Prison had performed oral sex on one inmate, and told another inmate to hide a razor in a nearby prisoner's bunk as retribution. The division that handles those investigations stripped the employee of his state certification to work as a corrections officer.

The 10 percent cut, if fully implemented, could be enough to drive away the chief medical examiner, the department suggested in its budget cut proposal.

“It is extremely difficult to recruit medical examiners with current conditions," the document reads. 

Under the proposed cuts, the department would also curb overtime for narcotics investigators and reduce advanced cyber security training for information technology staff.

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.