For Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito, the Nov. 7 general election is crunch time.
Voters decide whether to approve a tax increase in the public safety levy to provide more money to fund his office’s operations.
The additional revenue, Twito said, will help his office “sustain what we have.”
Without an increase, Twito worries that his office won’t be able to provide the services it does now while the workload continues to soar.
“Every aspect of my office is increasing,” Twito said.
What has not increased is the public safety levy. The levy is the same as it was 17 years ago, when voters approved it in 2000 to dedicate funding for the county attorney’s operations.
Since then, Yellowstone County has grown into an urban community and regional hub for many services, including the judicial and criminal justice system, Twito said.
To fill an increasing gap between the office’s revenue and expenses, the county’s general fund reserves have been subsidizing the county attorney’s basic operations at unsustainable amounts.
Even with the subsidy, county officials said, the county attorney's fund reserves will continue to decline and are projected to be drained of money by 2023.
County Finance Director Kevan Bryan urged county commissioners during the 2018 budget process to consider a mill levy increase to help address the significant funding shortages confronting the county attorney.
The commissioners agreed to put the issue to voters when they approved a resolution for the Nov. 7 election.
Ballots for the all-mail election will be sent to voters on Wednesday.
Twito has been taking his case to the community by speaking to organizations like senior citizens, service clubs and Big Sky Economic Development.
Reasons for the funding increase
Here is a look at the proposal and reasons for increasing demands on county attorney services:
The public safety levy: The proposal is for an eight-mill increase, from four mills to about 12 mills, to raise an additional $2.75 million annually. The current four-mill levy raises about $1.45 million.
If approved, the levy increase would be perpetual. The annual cost of the increase on a home valued at $100,000 would be $10.80, while the cost of the increase on a home valued at $200,000 would be $21.60.
County Attorney office staffing: The county has added 10 full-time positions in the past 10 years, with six of those positions approved in the past six months. The new jobs include two attorneys, three legal assistants and a victim witness coordinator.
Bryan said the office would have added two more staff in the 2018 budget if there had been money and space available. The office has 48 staff, including the six new positions, funded by the county attorney’s budget.
County Attorney’s budget: When the public safety levy was passed in 2000, it raised about $660,000 a year. The tax revenue from the levy has increased over the years mainly from new construction and growth. Back then, the office had about 32 employees and a budget of about $2 million. The 2018 budget is more than $5 million.
Population growth: When the public safety levy passed in 2000, Yellowstone County’s population was 127,641. By 2016, the population had increased by 30,796 residents to 158,437 people, the U.S. Census Bureau said.
New judges: The 2017 Legislature approved two additional district court judges for the 13th Judicial District, which is Yellowstone County, to help ease the caseload of the district’s six judges. About 20 percent of the approximately 55,000 cases filed annually in district court are in the 13th District, which is the busiest in the state.
Additional judges mean more county attorney staffing in court for hearings and more time to prepare the calendars, which for law and motion can run anywhere from two to 15 pages. “I’ve got to put people in courtrooms,” Twito said.
Caseload: Cases filed in District Court have nearly doubled from 2010 to 2015, going from 677 cases to 1,237 cases. And last year, there were 1,324 cases filed, the county attorney’s office said.
Meth use in the community, Twito said, is a major reason for increased demands on his office. Of the 1,324 felony cases filed last year, 426 cases, or about 32 percent, involved meth, he said.
Abuse and neglect cases: Child abuse and neglect cases have skyrocketed, largely because of meth use by parents, Twito said. There were 626 new and reopened child abuse and neglect cases filed in 2016, up from 143 cases in 2010, according to information from the Montana Office of Court Administrator.
Abuse and neglect cases is a court process to remove abused and neglected children from homes. Every case is “horrible,” Twito said, and involves serious abuse or neglect that typically includes exposure to drugs.
Involuntary commitments: The county attorney files petitions for court rulings to have people who have mental illnesses committed for treatment. The people are either an imminent danger to themselves or to others or are unable to care for themselves. The number of involuntary commitments has increased from 52 commitments filed in 2011 to 182 commitments in 2016.
Twito said the county has three to four commitment hearings a week that involve one of his civil deputies, a judge and other officials going to Billings Clinic’s psychiatric services unit for a hearing.
Witness fees: The 2017 Legislature cut state reimbursements for witness fees, making it the county’s responsibility. Twito said the cut was significant and placed more burden on the county to pay to bring in witnesses for trials. For the 2018 budget, commissioners increased witness and jury fees to $75,000 — up $57,000 from $18,000 — in 2017.
Marsy’s Law: In 2016, Montana voters approved a constitutional initiative expanding victims’ rights. Known as Marsy’s Law, the initiative increased notifications and expanded the definition of “victim” to include people on the faultless side of minor traffic offenses, Twito said.
“The voters wanted it. I get it,” he said. Implementing the law will add more work to ensure compliance with notification requirements, he said.