Downtown transients

A shoving match breaks out between transients in an alley between North 26th and 27th Streets in downtown Billings last December.

It is time to make public safety in Billings and Yellowstone County the No. 1 economic development priority. All economic development efforts fail if our community is not safe.

We soon will be having one more public meeting on safety. Let’s not discuss what we have done. Let’s discuss what more we can do. It is time for the city, county, Downtown Billings Alliance, Chamber of Commerce and Big Sky Economic Development recognize the problem and elevate their focus to make improvements. We all must help. Too many citizens and businesses depend on their safety in their consideration to stay in Billings. Here are a few ideas that could be considered. There must be many more.

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  1. Police are required by policy to have a minimum of nine officers, citywide, per shift. This is obviously not enough and often requires overtime and other means to meet the policy. We need more cops. A more carefully detailed mill levy is important.
  2. Criminal trial are delayed because the Office of Public Defender is short personnel with excessive turnover. This management issue needs to be resolved.
  3. Bottle and single can sales of alcohol are still an issue. We have seen bottle buyers reselling in our alley to underage and inebriated. There must be consequences for liquor sellers. Consider an honor roll for those establishments who fix the problem.
  4. Our bike cops are great but have to be reactive. We need cops walking on their beat.
  5. Billings has no public restroom facilities downtown like Red Lodge and Missoula. Vagrants are using alleys, streets and storefronts. Consider opening up and expanding the restrooms at City Hall and the county building. We need to build public restrooms. Explore building restrooms on the first floors of parking garages.
  6. Nonprofits don’t pay property taxes. They need to budget additional revenue to help the public safety problem. Social service agencies must contribute to security.
  7. There are no consequences for vagrancy and drunkenness. The county jail is full and most of the street people know this. What other consequences should be in place? Do we provide drunk tanks, temporary detention and fines?
  8. After 4 p.m., downtown patrolling is nearly absent. Assess downtown businesses and nonprofit social service entities. Evening and weekend security are essential.
  9. Reconsider state Department of Corrections and federal use of jail. Local needs should be given priority at the Yellowstone County jail. Local taxpayers paid for the jail.
  10. What’s the status of the design and lighting program committed to in the November public safety meeting?
  11. Consider going back to 911 calls for all downtown enforcement.
  12. Meet with tribal authorities to work on recreational drinking by people being transported to Billings by the Crow Nation Transit. There is a homeless problem, but there is also a “let’s go to Billings and drink” problem. We have been told that the Crow Nation Transit drivers have discretion on whether they will allow a “drunk” person back on the bus to head home. We need much more help from the tribe.
  13. If the city and county can’t solve the enforcement and jail problems, it might be time to look at law enforcement consolidation. A previous county attorney (Harold Hanser) suggested consolidation could put 10 more officers on any beat countywide.

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Gary Buchanan is a downtown Billings businessman. He previously chaired the Montana Board of Crime Control and Big Sky Economic Development.