Yellowstone County’s judicial district handles an enormous volume of cases. Its six District Court judges are so overwhelmed with work that an independent group, assigned to study the districts across Montana, found that we needed six more judges. A sobering thought.
The Legislature, even in a cost-cutting environment, funded two judges to be elected in 2018 and take office in January 2019. By anyone’s measure, Yellowstone County handles a disproportionate number of legal proceedings, driven by Billings being a regional center for almost every type of activity. Almost all of this flows through one office, that of County Attorney Scott Twito.
In 2000, this county’s citizens recognized the need in our county attorney’s office and approved a mill levy to assist efforts to protect our citizens. At the time, that office was granted a staffing level of 32 employees and a $2 million budget. The initial levy raised about $660,000. Methamphetamine was an infrequent problem then.
In 2016, the county attorney’s office handled 1,324 felonies, 425 (one-third) of them related to our community meth epidemic. Other numbers of cases are up since then as well, in some instances doubling or tripling in the past several years. Take a moment to consider child abuse and neglect cases. Those stood at 124 in 2010. Last year? 531 — an increase of 328 percent. Frightening and heartbreaking, especially when considering the horrible things that are happening to innocent young children.
For the upcoming year, the county attorney’s office has a staff of 48 and a budget in excess of $5 million. Both of those numbers are inadequate, but due to courthouse space and financial limitations, it is the best we can do. Montana voters passed a constitutional amendment last year that will increase the duties and responsibilities of the county attorney’s victim service staff. We need to increase personnel dedicated to victim services and the county attorney’s child abuse and neglect division.
Twito has done an exemplary job. He has quietly worked to innovate, make do and apply patches. But now he is faced with choices ranging from the unacceptable to the impossible. He needs the staff and resources to handle cases that involve violence against those who are often the most vulnerable. To imagine a world where his office has to pick and choose where to apply those staff members and those dollars while any of our citizens’ needs go unmet, or are delayed, is difficult to grasp. We need to do everything we can to keep that from happening.
As a board, we have done just that for quite some time. The reality is that our county’s core funding mechanism, the general fund, is simply unable to provide enough continued subsidy to meet the need. Our general fund currently covers many of this county’s overall obligations, including more than a dozen departments and numerous programs. It is increasingly clear that it will not be able to handle all of the needs it currently covers along with expanded expenditures to the county attorney’s operations.
The general fund now expends well in excess of $2 million annually, or about 15 percent of all of its revenue, to support our county attorney’s office. This amounts to about half of the county attorney’s budget. Not only is this level of support not enough to stop the decline in reserves, but it will deplete his funds to an unsustainable level in just a few more years, and require the general fund’s reserve begin to decline in order to maintain operations. Worse, we may be faced with reducing his otherwise overloaded staff. Public safety will undoubtedly suffer.
This county’s main missions revolve around public safety and public health. We do everything we can, every single day, to promote both to enhance our quality of life and to protect you, our citizens. The county attorney’s operations are simply too important and the need is too urgent to not take action. Dangerous drug dealers and felons, abused women and children, exploited elderly and neglected kids are located in every corner of our county. The violent felons deserve quick capture and vigorous prosecution, and the abused, exploited, and neglected cry out for our help.
We are asking you for an increase of 8 mills to stabilize that effort, and to provide a level of service that continues to make Yellowstone County a safe place we are proud to call home. This will raise taxes and we do not make this request lightly. If your home is valued at $100,000, your increase will amount to $10.80 per year. At $200,000, you will see an increase of $21.60 — less than six cents per day.
The need is not going away. The demand is increasing faster than any of us want. With the passage of this levy request, we will be able to meet that need and respond to that demand for the next decade and beyond. As your county commissioners, we are unanimous in our support for this mill levy, and we ask for your support as well.