Council takes 1st step toward levy for police, fire

2014-07-07T20:35:00Z 2014-07-18T06:12:04Z Council takes 1st step toward levy for police, fireBy MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

If the Billings City Council decides to place what’s now being called a Family Safety Levy on the Nov. 4 ballot, it’s going to have to hear from the public and vote on the matter twice before the end of July.

The City Council took an initial step toward meeting that timeline Monday after hearing from staff about the financial effects of passing a levy — and the possible public safety challenges that might result from a levy failure.

City staff, including City Administrator Tina Volek, Police Chief Rich St. John and Fire Chief Paul Dextras, are proposing a levy in perpetuity to begin in 2015-16 at 12 mills, rising to 125 mills in 2024-25.

The levy would add $31 to the property tax bill on a $200,000 house in 2015-16, rising to $325 by 2024-25 on that same $200,000 house.

If nothing is done to further fund public safety, the city’s $10 million unbudgeted reserve will be spent in the next few years and up to 65 public safety personnel, including dispatchers, could lose their jobs between 2015-16 and 2018-19.

Under the “community growth” scenario that staff supports, over five years beginning in 2015-16 the city would add 13 police officers, six firefighters, an animal control officer, a police clerk, a fire administrative support person and five emergency dispatchers to meet growing needs.

Billings’ population has increased about 1.5 percent in each of the last several years, and city leaders expect that growth to continue. The city’s footprint is growing, too — and is projected to increase up to two miles in the coming 10 years, according to city staff.

Presenting to the city council during its work session before the topic that most of those in attendance were in council chambers to hear — the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance — Volek noted that calls for service are up 32 percent over the last five years. The same nine police shifts are in place today as when Mayor Tom Hanel began his police service to the city nearly 30 years ago.

Public safety now consumes 58 percent of the city’s general fund dollars.

“Clearly we are a growing city with growing needs,” Volek said.

Todd Buchanan, a Billings businessman who has offered his services trying to get the levy passed, said that voters will have two choices: either “be proactive and make the investment to continue to prepare the fire department and the police department to handle the changing needs of the community, or we can pay for these issues in arrears. We have a lot of issues with a crowded jail and a crowded court system, and this levy addresses those.”

The ballot language must be submitted to Yellowstone County Election Administrator Bret Rutherford by Aug. 11. Ballots would be mailed out Oct. 6.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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