Yellowstone County commissioners adopted the 2018 budget on Tuesday, but one commissioner called it unsustainable if a proposed public safety levy increase fails to win voter approval in November.
Commissioner Denis Pitman, who declined to second a motion approving the budget but voted for it, said it was not “a proactive budget. It’s not sustainable if we don’t get the safety levy.”
Explaining to voters the need for a proposed eight-mill increase to the public safety levy to help fund the county attorney’s operations will be his “passion” in the coming months, Pitman said.
Without additional tax support for the county attorney, Pitman said, the county will continue to spend reserves, depleting them in about five years. The outcome of the public safety levy election will determine how the county moves forward, he said.
County Finance Director Kevan Bryan said without the additional levy money, the county attorney’s funds could run out in two to five years. The county’s general fund currently subsidizes the county attorney’s budget, but Bryan said it can’t continue to do so without eroding its ability to fund other county needs.
The proposed levy increase would raise taxes on a $100,000 house by $10.80 a year and on a $200,000 house by $21.60 per year.
The 2018 budget is Pitman’s first budget. He took office in January after beating former Commissioner Jim Reno in last year’s Republican primary.
Reno was one of two people who commented on the budget at Tuesday’s final public hearing.
Holding up a small stuffed monkey, Reno said he was going to place the toy on a child’s grave at Riverside Cemetery, the county-owned cemetery for indigent people.
Reno, who as a commissioner took a special interest in upgrading and renovating the formerly run-down cemetery, supported the county’s continued budget earmark of $18,000 in payment-in-lieu-of-taxes revenue to buy 70 headstones for Riverside Cemetery. The county donates the money to the Marine Corps League, which is working to make sure all graves have headstones. Old tin grave markers have been missing or damaged over the years.
“If you are poor in the county, we are not going to forget you. Thank you for your budget for not forgetting them,” Reno said.
While Reno didn’t mention it, Pitman at the first public hearing said he wanted to restrict PILT money to be used as “a rainy day” fund to help county departments with unexpected budget needs. Donations to buy headstones was an item Pitman said he would cut, saying headstones were not a critical county need.
Billings resident Jim Gransbery commented on the budget, thanking the commission for hearing earlier concerns he voiced about the countywide reappraisal and the mill levy. He also asked the commission to consider that city, county and school local taxes have increased since about 1989 when the Legislature began cutting business taxes.
Overall, the 2018 budget has a tax revenue increase of $1.45 million, or 3.15 percent, to $47.46 million. The increase is from an increase in countywide taxable value mostly from new construction from an inflation factor. There also is a slight increase for debt service on the veterans' cemetery.
Countywide, the mill levy will decrease 1.60 mills, or 1.42 percent, from the 2017 levy.
On the expense side, public safety spending increased more than administrative and support functions, Bryan said earlier.
The county also is increasing its staff by 9.25 full-time equivalent positions, which include two clerks for Justice Court, an evidence technician for the sheriff, two legal assistants and two deputy attorneys for the county attorney and three jail detention officers. The staff increases are a 2 percent increase from the 2017 budget.