The Billings City Council really wants to know what its constituents think.
Earlier this summer, the council asked dozens of questions in a survey mailed to 1,200 households. More than 400 residents responded, giving their opinions on a wide range of city services and on life in Billings generally.
Next week, the council and city staff members will hold three public meetings around town to discuss the Citizen Survey results and to get feedback on two major issues: the city budget and public safety.
The city is planning to implement a process called “priority-based budgeting.” City Administrator Tina Volek will be at the Community Conversations to explain how this process is supposed to work. The city needs to rethink its budget because costs have been growing faster than revenues even as the city has grown.
Public safety concerns are related to budget concerns. The tightest area of the budget is the general fund because most of its revenues are transferred to the Police and Fire departments. Additionally, the public safety departments are supported by a mill levy that voters approved in 1999 and a second voter-approved levy that took effect in fiscal year 2006. That most recent levy gradually increased over five years until in 2010 it raised $8.2 million. The levy is permanently capped at $8.2 million per year.
However, police and fire expenses, including salaries, benefits and equipment go up every year. And many people think the city ought to have more public safety workers.
The Citizen Survey showed an increase in personal safety worries. Councilwoman Jani McCall compared responses to this year’s survey and the 2009 survey. Three years ago, 11 percent of respondents listed public safety, crime or safety services as one of the most pressing issues for the city to address. This summer, 24 percent of respondents put public safety at the top of their issues list.
Fewer people said they felt safe in the city, especially downtown after dark. In the latest survey, only 59 percent of respondents said they felt safe from violent crime and a mere 35 percent felt safe from property crime. Just 47 percent had a positive opinion of traffic enforcement.
However, 65 percent said the Police Department is doing a good job.
Ninety-one percent said the Fire Department is doing a good job — the highest percentage rating for any major city service.
McCall noted that the city received 539 responses in 2009 and 432 this summer. The company that conducted the survey said it is considered accurate within 5 percentage points.
If you’re wondering whether the survey or the community meetings make a difference, consider a point that McCall made. Three years ago, 75 percent of the survey respondents said they favored creation of a citywide park maintenance district. That endorsement weighed in the Park Board and City Council decisions to move forward with creating a park district, which will have an assessment on November tax bills.
Speak up, Billings. Say what you want and don’t want from city government at a forum that will include council members, the city administrator and police and fire chiefs. Check the box for times and places of Community Conversations.