From the editor: Just give me the numbers

2014-08-24T07:00:00Z 2014-08-25T07:11:31Z From the editor: Just give me the numbersBy DARRELL EHRLICK The Billings Gazette
August 24, 2014 7:00 am  • 

Benjamin Disraeli is credited with saying, "There are three kinds of lies — lies, damn lies and statistics."

And so, backed by popular demand, I give you statistics.

I mean that quite literally. Since the announcement of the city of Billings public safety levy initiative, I have had more than a dozen calls asking if we can print more information, or do more analysis of the city's plea for money to go to the police and fire departments.

It's an odd thing for a newspaper editor to hear: Can you just give us more statistics? More numbers? Maybe thrown in a few charts and graphs?

OK, so no one has quite gotten to requesting pie charts.

In The Gazette's defense, we've posted material online, which includes mill levy rates and the sliding tax schedule, based on property assessment. Some people look at those and their eyes glaze.

Yet one of the big challenges is that this mill levy is a big ask for property owners. If you own a home assessed at $200,000 per year, it could mean more than $25 a month in taxes by 2025. That's noticeable.

We must weigh that against a Billings that seems to be changing. It is indeed growing into a city, no longer just a big town.

However, Billings may not be changing as much as we think.

Of course, there are headlines about crime. There have always been headlines about crime, though. If you don't believe me, come on down to the office and we can wade through The Gazette archives of the past 129 years.

It's easy to see Toby Griego and remember Judge Russell Fagg's words about him being the most dangerous criminal he's ever dealt with. It's hard not to get worried about the stabbing of Michael Sample. Or know quite what to do about the mother who was chased up and down Rimrock Road, an otherwise residential thoroughfare, being shot at.

Yet a careful look at statistics doesn't paint such a scary picture. Instead, it shows that Billings is simply growing.

In the past decade, the city has grown 16 percent (from 94,000 to just a little north of 109,000).

Drug crime in the city, on a per 1,000 call basis, is up 21 percent. Increased, sure. Property crime on the same basis is not even up 2 percent.

While it's true Billings has seen the actual number of crime cases grow, and that's alarmed some folks, what may not be factored in is the growth in people. With more people come more crime.

Not all is rosy. Some of the trend lines are troubling.

Aggravated assault has risen 96 percent on a per-thousand-population basis. Calls for service continue to rise at a pace that exceeds Billings' population growth.

Meanwhile, it's also true that the police department's numbers haven't quite kept up with the growth in calls, or the growth in population. In 2004, there were 128 sworn police officers on the force. In 2013, that number was 141, a little more than 10 percent growth, while the population had grown one-and-a-half times that much.

Summarizing the trends and statistics is an interesting exercise. The reasons behind these trends will be hopefully the starting points of conversation as the city makes it pitch for this levy.

The percentage of general fund dollars that go to public safety has remained amazingly consistent in the past decade, from a high of 64 percent this year to a low of 57 percent in 2009.

People are more likely to call an emergency dispatcher than they were a decade ago.

You're almost twice as likely to be assaulted in Billings than you were a decade ago. Still, the number of assaults per 1,000 people is less than 3.

Statistically, your property is about as safe as it was in 2004.

There are more drug crimes in Billings than a decade ago. But, if this is solely due to the Bakken (and that's probably a poor assumption), the increase is about 20 percent.

Billings is growing. And crime, especially crime that seems to catch public attention, is on the rise.

The question is: What's it worth to you?

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