Members of the Billings Fire Department and Billings Police Department work at the scene of a crash on North 27th Street near East Airport Road in Billings on November 30, 2019.

Billings City Council members know they have to address the city's increasing public safety needs, but they're struggling to figure out how. 

The council spent a large part of their Monday night meeting talking about the best way to pay for an increase in public safety services, ranging from seeking a mill levy from voters to shifting how the city pays for its parks. The discussion started in an October work session and has continued. 

City administrator Chris Kukulski reminded council members on Monday night that improving public safety was the one priority on which they all unanimously agreed during their goal setting session earlier this year. Still, as council members talked on Monday, they came to no consensus on how to pay for it. 

As the discussion has evolved over the last two months, council members have talked about possibly charging city residents a fee if police or fire personnel respond to an emergency in which those residents are involved. 

Council members also floated the idea of charging more for municipal infractions like speeding tickets and increasing what it charges county residents who use city-based fire and emergency services. 

Each of these ideas would bring in only hundreds of thousands of dollars. In order to bring the police and fire departments, along with emergency call services and municipal court needs, in line with similar-sized cities, Billings would need roughly $25 million.

To generate that much revenue, the city would need voters to pass a public safety mill levy or create a public safety district, which would allow the city to collect fees from residents without going out to a vote. 

In response to previous questions from council members, city staff crunched different combinations of numbers, looking at various scenarios and presented that to the council on Monday night.

To raise the necessary funds through a mill levy, voters would have to approve the city to collect an additional 87 mills from property owners. Roughly translated, an increase that size would raise property taxes on a $200,000 home by about $280 a year. 

The council will continue to discuss public safety and a possible mill levy in the new year. When they reconvene in January, four new council members will be part of the discussion. 

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