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Yellowstone County is successfully flattening the COVID curve, Felton tells Billings City Council

Yellowstone County is successfully flattening the COVID curve, Felton tells Billings City Council

From the Here's how the coronavirus has progressed in Montana and Wyoming series
Billings City Council

The Billings City Council holds the first meeting of 2020.

Yellowstone County's efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 appear to be working. 

John Felton, the county's public health officer, told the Billings City Council on Monday night that the closure of dining areas, bars and casinos, and the state order to stay inside appear to be making a difference. 

"There's evidence we're getting good results," he said. "We really have successfully pushed down the curve."

Forecast models on the spread of COVID-19 in Montana produced by the University of Washington have moved up the date for the expected peak of the virus from April 26 to April 13, Felton said. 

An earlier peak could mean a sooner end to the pandemic, he said. But he gave no guarantees and cautioned residents to continue to stay home and to practice safe socially distancing tactics if they have to go out. It's the only way to continue slowing the spread of the disease, he said. 

"Normal is still a little ways away," he said. 

It was a glimmer of good news for city officials, who spent the rest of Monday's meeting discussing virus's impact on city finances. 

Late last week, the city furloughed nine parking division employees; on Monday it furloughed a part-time municipal court employee. The furloughs are indefinite and they're a move by the city to try and mitigate deeper cuts in the future. 

The city closed its downtown parking garages to hourly parking last week after finding in the last two weeks that no one was using them.

City administrator Chris Kukulski told the council that many seasonal positions likely wouldn't be filled this summer in an effort to curb expenses. 

Much of Monday night's discussion centered on the public safety mill levy the council has been debating for the last six months. The city is looking at a gap of roughly $4 million to $6 million in its operating budget next year. 

Some city leaders had hoped to fill that gap and increase funding for police, fire and municipal court services with a public safety mill levy this fall. However, the economic uncertainty brought about by COVID-19 has made council members reluctant to seek a tax increase from voters. 

The other option available to the city is moving the operational costs of parks and recreation out of the general fund and into a specialized fund known as Park District 1. Moving the parks and rec department out of the general fund would free up roughly $4 million of general fund money that could immediately be applied to public safety services. 

But in order to continue to fund parks and recreation, the city would have to increase by $4 million what it assesses from city residents for Park District 1. It's been a point of spirited debate among council members because city council has the authority to increase assessment fees without going to voters. 

The council will continue the discussion later this month. 

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