Billings Mayor Tom Hanel painted a picture of a dynamic, bustling city for the Downtown Rotary Club Monday, but also noted that public safety concerns — and the money needed to keep the public safe — could challenge residents and city officials in the months and years to come.
Hanel, a club member and retired Billings police lieutenant, delivered his annual state of the city report to Rotarians, who meet at noon most Mondays at the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
The biggest challenges for the city are “the growing demands on public safety,” he said.
Police and firefighters handled about 75,000 calls for service in 2013 — nearly 70,000 by police, or almost 200 calls per day.
“You never know until you arrive how important or how frightening the call might be,” he said. “This is obviously a big concern of mine.”
Nine police officers were on patrol per shift when Hanel began his service to the police department in the mid-1970s, and nine officers are on duty per shift now, he said, handling calls for service “that are now potentially much more dangerous” in a city that’s grown both in square miles and population.
“You’ve all seen police cars at doughnut shops and restaurants, and I love doughnuts as much as anyone else,” Hanel said, “but those days are long gone.”
After his speech concluded, Hanel said he believes it’s appropriate for the city council to periodically review the police department’s use-of-force policy, but not necessarily as a result of last week’s fatal shooting of Richard Ramirez, 38.
“The level of threat toward officers has escalated,” he said. “They are experiencing increased use of weapons and mind-altering drugs. It’s always been a dangerous occupation. I worry about our police officers, and about public safety (providers) in general.”
He also said he agreed with Billings Police Chief Rich St. John that officers could increasingly find themselves in use-of-force situations in the future.
Hanel also urged voters to consider whether they want to explore potential changes in the city’s form of government, as Montana law requires every decade. They’ll decide on the June ballot whether to do that or not, and, if the measure is approved, in November would elect members of the commission charged with evaluating the form of government.
He also cited a few statistics to back up his claim that the Magic City “has been elevated in many ways” of late:
— More than 400 single-family homes were constructed in 2013, and Billings saw about $400 million in total construction. “No city in 500 miles can say that,” Hanel said. And those buildings in large part went up without much delay: the average review period for a commercial structure was 20 days; it took officials an average of four days to review and issue a residential building permit, he said.
— MET Transit is exploring using smaller and more efficient buses to expand its services and now offers free rides to veterans to and from the new VA clinic on the West End.
— The 120 or so volunteers who assist the police department contributed about $300,000 worth of work and reduced officer overtime in 2013.
— Five hotels opened in 2013, and the Northern Hotel underwent a $20 million upgrade. A 220,000-square-foot Scheels store set to open this fall will employ 300 people and will be the nation’s second-largest all-sporting-goods store.
— City leaders saved taxpayers $6.9 million in interest payments in 2013 by refinancing, something “that they could have easily overlooked,” Hanel said. The 2013-14 budget is $2.5 million smaller than that of the previous fiscal year.