After hearing a presentation from City Administrator Tina Volek and also hearing from the public, the Billings City Council voted unanimously Monday on an ordinance to ask voters to decide on a levy to cover public safety needs caused by the community’s anticipated growth over the next 10 years.
The public safety levy will go to Billings voters Nov. 4.
Volek said a committee of community leaders will begin presenting details of the levy to civic groups and hold three “community conversations” beginning in September.
“In order to sell this,” Councilwoman Jani McCall said, “this council is going to have to be firmly behind it.”
“I have spoken to people around town,” Marie Hunter of Billings told the City Council, “and I believe you folks will get huge support, because we all know what’s happening.”
“We are a safe community,” said Councilwoman Becky Bird. “However, public safety personnel are so busy with more egregious, violent crime that other things aren’t being addressed in a timely fashion. We don’t have the human capital to cover the bases.”
Not all residents voiced support for the proposed levy.
“I am getting taxed out of my house,” said Anthony Raue of Billings, a carpenter. “I think you will start taxing other people out of the city. This one is a tough sell for me.”
During the first five years of the levy, the city plans to hire 27 public safety personnel, including 13 police officers, six firefighters, an animal control officer, a police clerk, a fire administrative support person and five 911 dispatchers.
An assistant city attorney and paralegal would also be added to meet the increased cases expected from additional growth.
The levy would start in 2015-16 at 12 mills and approximately $2 million. In 2024-25 125 mills would be levied and produce approximately $22.8 million.
The mill levy assessment for 2024-25 would continue indefinitely, and General Fund reserves would be spent down to the recommended level by the end of the 2017-18 fiscal year.
If voters approve the levy, the owner of a $200,000 home would pay $31 in additional property taxes during the 2015-16 tax year and $325 during 2025-26.
Volek told the City Council that since the Montana Legislature voted in 2009 to begin a six-year reappraisal cycle on property taxes, “Our property tax income has basically leveled out.”
That’s the main reason, she said, that the city’s steady growth cannot pay for the public safety officials needed to provide at least the current level of services.
The city’s charter limits the total mills that can be levied to 74, unless residents vote themselves a special levy.
According to Volek, 77 percent of the Police Department’s budget is spent on personell services, while 83 percent of the Fire Department’s costs are personnel-related.
“When we survey the public and do strategic planning, public safety is the number-one need for the residents of this community,” Volek said. “We are going to be severely challenged with the growth we have and the changes that are going on in this community.”
The City Council also agreed on what to call the levy — the public safety levy, and not, as suggested earlier, the family safety levy.
“Billings is one big family,” Mayor Tom Hanel said, “but it doesn’t matter to me what you call it. Whatever gets it passed.”
“You could call it the warm and fuzzy tax hike,” Councilman Rich McFadden said with a smile, but the council agreed to leave it as the public safety levy for the ballot.