BILLINGS — Billings residents passed a nearly $5 million public safety mill levy in 2020. Now, safety officials and community leaders are saying they need about $7 million more as Billings continues to combat a growing crime problem.
Citizens for a Safer Billings launched a campaign Tuesday for a levy on November's ballot that asks for $7.1 million in additional money for new police officers, two new mobile response teams for the fire department, more prosecutors, and resources for mental health and substance abuse treatment.
“We have to get a handle on the violent crime that’s taking place," said Billings Police Chief Rich St. John at Tuesday's press conference. "Our numbers are through the roof.”
Billings has grown 11 percent over the last decade, according to the latest U.S. Census statistics, but that’s nothing compared to the exponential crime rate curve.
“According to the FBI, in 2019, the rate of violent crime in the country as a whole was 370 crimes per 100,000 people," said Billings Mayor Bill Cole. "Surprisingly, Montana was still higher at 405, and in Billings, the rate of violent crime was 610, an astonishing 65% higher than the national average.”
“The number of calls from Billings residents seeking assistance from the Billings fire department has nearly doubled in the last decade," added Billings Fire Chief Pepper Valdez. "In 2010, the department received 10,352 calls for service, and the volume steadily climbed to 18,234. We expect to receive well over 19,000 in 2021."
Valdez says an engine goes out on almost every one of those calls. That’s not sustainable anymore, so his top priority is more staffing for a new unit.
“Create a division that can take care of low acuity calls so that we’re not sending out as many resources on those types of calls," he said.
St. John also is looking for staff - 28 more full-time employees, but there’s a twist.
“The consultants didn’t think we needed all 28 badges, so 50% of those are civilian positions," St. John said. "The goal is to take more menial tasks off patrol officers and detectives.”
Matt McDonnell, who hosted Tuesday’s presser outside his area business, Raisin Contracting, opened with a recent story of private and public cooperative success.
“There was a group of private business owners that bought Lazy KT Motel and were able to take it down," McDonnell said. "Before that happened, we had some good neighbors who were going to leave, good businesses in this area, and that was pretty sad to us. So they got together, took down the building, and there’s been zero calls to 911 in that area.”
Every-day citizens will be responsible for these costs, however. A taxpayer who owns a $200,000 home will see about a $100 increase per year. Last year’s levy was only about half that - $54 per $200,000. Officials say that was mainly to avoid layoffs after the city’s COVID-19 budget shortfall - this will be about reversing an alarming trend.
Election Day is Nov. 2.