Safety levy: 'The public is the driving force'

2014-07-18T00:15:00Z 2014-09-19T13:51:03Z Safety levy: 'The public is the driving force'By MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

If you’re a member of just about any club, group or church in Billings, you’re about to hear a lot more about the public safety mill levy.

If it passes a second reading from the city council on July 28 — and it probably will — the proposed levy will go to voters Nov. 4.

It’s a property tax increase that would raise about $2 million during 2015-16 and nearly $23 million by its 10th year, 2024-25.

Fire Chief Paul Dextras told the city council Monday that failure to pass the levy will result in “a reduction in staffing levels that will directly impact the overall delivery of essential emergency responses to fires and emergency medical calls.”

It could also raise fire insurance rates for commercial and residential property owners, leave fire stations unstaffed at times and result in the loss of up to 50 public safety providers, including police, firefighters and dispatchers, by the 2017-18 fiscal year.

Public safety and other city officials said they want voters to decide based on all the information they can provide over the coming months.

While both Dextras and Police Chief Rich St. John are precluded from telling people how to vote, they are able to share facts about crime, fire suppression and staffing levels, while leaving the “ask” to a committee of business and community leaders being formed to support the mill levy.

“We must have given 80-plus talks in 2009,” the time of an $8.2 million per year public safety levy, St. John said.

“Chief Dextras and I will probably be out and about just about daily” as the election approaches, he predicted.

How does Billings stack up?

St. John has a spreadsheet that compares police staffing ratios and costs in Montana cities as well as in benchmark cities with similarly-sized police departments, including Fargo, N.D., Richardson, Texas, and Broken Arrow, Okla.

Out-of-state figures are from the Overland Park, Kan., Benchmark Cities Survey. The in-state numbers were produced while city administrators were bargaining with the Montana Public Employees Association’s Billings Police Unit.

For the 2012-13 fiscal year, the budget for the Billings PD was about 7.6 percent of the city’s total budget, the lowest of Montana’s largest cities, which include Bozeman, Butte-Silver Bow, Great Falls, Kalispell and Missoula. At 1.3 officers per 1,000 population, Billings’ ratio was the second highest in the state, behind Bozeman’s 1.4 officers per 1,000 and ahead of Missoula (.98) and Great Falls (.92).

Billings’ officers per population ratio was about in the middle of benchmark U.S. cities, including Everett, Wash. (1.95), San Angelo, Texas (1.4), Norman, Okla., which matched Billings’ 1.3, Columbia, Mo. (1.2), and Green Bay, Wis. (.98).

At a price tag of about $142,000 per officer, which includes operation and maintenance costs, Billings was highest in the state and about on par with some benchmark cities, including Richardson, Texas (about $146,000 per officer), underneath other communities (Boulder, Colo., about $171,000) but above others, including Broken Arrow, at about $129,000, and Columbia, about $118,000.

St. John said new Billings police officers are paid $21-$22 per hour. The relatively high wage entices dozens of people — sometimes as many as 100 — to apply for every police officer opening. Most, but not all officers have obtained at least an undergraduate degree, he said.

“It’s a more mature candidate, someone willing to stick with something and finish it, someone who can communicate and demonstrate deductive thinking,” St. John said. “But it’s performance over pedigree. Some people without degrees, including military veterans, are our best officers.”

St. John said he asks people, “Where do you want me to start cutting and still make a difference?” should the levy proposal fail in November. School resource officers help prevent crime by establishing relationships with hundreds of Billings youth. An officer trained in computer forensics played a large role in helping convict serial rapist Toby Griego. Officers assigned to the Internet Crimes against Children task force, a statewide agency housed in the Billings Police Department, use their experience and knowledge to track down online sexual predators.

Let the voters decide

Dextras said that minimal fire staffing is three firefighters at each of Billings’ seven fire stations, plus a battalion chief in charge of each 24-hour shift. Of the department’s 111 employees who don’t work in the dispatch center, 105 are firefighters/emergency medical technicians. That’s .96 firefighters per 1,000 population.

Last year, the Billings Fire Department — together with their counterparts, first responders with a private provider, American Medical Response — answered more than 7,000 calls for emergency medical service and 265 fire calls.

“Not to minimize the difference between the calls, because they are very different calls, but if you look at those numbers, a significant amount of the population relies on the fire department every year,” he said. “If we’re forced to reduce the number of people able to respond to those, it will have a significant impact on response times, quality of care and levels of service.”

“The public is the driving force,” Dextras added. “They will determine the level of service they are comfortable with.”

Dextras called it “essential” that he and St. John meet with the public to answer questions and provide information about the upcoming mill levy decision.

He said he’s been through three other mill levy campaigns in other jurisdictions. One passed, and two were defeated.

“You learn a lot from those experiences,” Dextras said. “The city has been very conservative with its budget, and the last mill levy got us through for 10 years. This levy is about helping the public realize the value of very competent police and fire departments.”

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

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