Pressure to better address an uptick in crime rates and a growing hole in the city budget, Billings leaders met Monday night to find their way forward.
Billings currently has the highest crime rate among Montana's six largest cities with a smaller-than-average police force when compared to similar-sized regional cities.
"Being the least safe city in Montana is unacceptable," said Chris Kukulski to city council members.
The city's tax base has grown enough roughly to keep pace with inflation as it covers the increased cost of police services, fire protection and the municipal court system, he said.
But it hasn't kept pace with the demand for service, which sat relatively flat until 2011, which saw about 61,000 calls. By 2018, that number had jumped to 93,000 calls.
Similarly, the area covered by the fire department has increased over the years as its agreement with Yellowstone County has taken it coverage area outside city boundaries; Billings Fire now covers almost as much area outside city limits as it does inside.
Voters in Billings last approved a public safety mill levy in the early 2000s, agreeing to $8.2 million. In 2019 that $8.2 million buys fewer services than it did when it passed.
The city sought another public safety mill levy from voters in 2014, but it didn't pass.
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Should the city choose to try again next year, it must specify a number of mills rather than a dollar amount. The $8.2 million from the last decade at the time was 60 mills; today its worth about 40 mills.
By locking in the number of mills with voters rather than a set dollar amount the city would collect funding each year that kept pace with inflation. Council members spent time Monday night talking about what the right numbers of mills would be. One mill is worth $200,000 and costs the average taxpayer about $3.25.
To improve public safety in the city, the police department would hire an additional 36 officers and the fire department would boost its staff and buy needed equipment and vehicle. The municipal court would hire an additional bailiff and increase some office space.
That would just cover immediate needs and cost a taxpayer with a $200,000 home roughly $222 a year, which translates to 85 to 100 mills.
To meet the public safety needs the city is anticipating over the next five years, the police department would need 15 more officers, the fire department would need a new fire station and municipal court would need more office space, an additional attorney and a judge.
To do that, the city would seek up to 130 mills from taxpayers, which would cost a homeowner with a $200,000 home roughly $277 a year.
"We just can't do status quo," Kukulski said. "Our entire city deserves to have a safe community."