Fire and police protection are hot topics in Billings, much-discussed by the chamber of commerce, The Gazette, and City Council. A public safety mill levy seems to be in the works. But one levy will lead to another unless we address the underlying causes of public safety shortfalls: unrelenting growth, sprawl development and socially corrosive development like the Bakken.
First, crime rates are higher in big cities than in smaller cities. As Billings grows, crime grows, too. Then there are the costs of serving growth, including administrative costs and costs to build and maintain ever more roads and sewers. Too often, these costs make growth a fiscal negative, requiring subsidies from existing residents and higher-density development. It won’t stop until we stabilize the population at a sustainable, fiscally sound size.
Second, sprawl exacerbates the fiscal problems of growth, generating too little in taxes to pay for the city services it requires. As we sprawl into a larger and larger geographical area, public safety and other services will always be playing catchup.
Third, while the Bakken development has brought profits to a few, it has brought to all in the city and region a significant increase in crime, including drug dealing, drug use, human trafficking and violence. Has it really been worth it?
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If we’re serious about addressing public safety in Billings, we need to reject the myth that bigger is better, put an end to urban sprawl, and turn away from “growth at all costs” economic development.