BILLINGS – A public safety mill levy in 2020 seems inevitable after the Billings City Council approved a 2020 budget Monday with a $4 million deficit in the general and public safety funds.
“There’s still a $4 million gap between our revenues and our expenditures,” Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski said Tuesday. “Thankfully we’ve got the reserves to cover that, but that reserve money is going to run out.”
Kukulski said dipping into the reserves year after year is not sustainable.
Levy specifics, like when it will be on the ballot and what it will look like, are not yet known.
Kukulski wants the levy presentation to not be “status quo.” He wants the conversation to center around long-term solutions to public safety.
“I’m hoping that this public safety mill levy discussion is about improving programs and making our community not only feel safer, but actually be safer,” Kukulski said. “Whether it’s in the core downtown, or whether it’s in your neighborhood, or whether it’s in a public park.”
In a Billings City Council meeting Monday, council members approved $2.1 million in cuts in an effort to offset a $6 million deficit, leaving an additional $4 million hole to fill in the public safety and general funds.
The council adopted cuts and other savings that were labeled to have “minimal and moderate” impacts to operations.
Kukulski said some of those savings included recalculating property liability insurance costs and workers compensation costs that were budgeted using dated rates.
“When you start putting the budget together in February or March for what it will be July 1, you want to be a little high rather than a little low,” Kukulski said. “Some of those minimal cuts allowed us to reduce those things and not affect service delivery.”
Also part of the minimal cuts is spending $250,000 on deferred fire station maintenance instead of the originally proposed $750,000.
The moderate cuts, in part, included a reduction in budgeted police and fire department overtime costs.
“We’re going to have to look at managing our training schedules. Because you can’t reduce overtime related to emergencies,” Kukulski said.
There are no layoffs planned with these cuts.
Billings has been facing a tight public-safety budget for years. In 2014, the city floated a levy to pay for 13 new police officers and six new firefighters. Backers argue that the city needed these new positions to handle the rising number of calls for police and fire service.
Nevertheless, voters struck down that measure, with only 48.5 percent voting in favor.
“That scenario year in and year out has had the community every five or ten years need to have this discussion with the citizens,” Kukulski said. “And have the citizens determine yes we’re comfortable we want to invest more. Or no we’re not. The 2014 levy failure has put us in that same position that it was predicted to back then.”
Kukulski said the 1977 Billings city charter imposed limits on what the city can ask from taxpayers.
“When the city charter was approved by the voters, it included a hard cap on revenue generated through not more than 74 mills. The price of a home back in the mid ’70s was dramatically different than it is today,” Kukulski said. “What has happened is there have been a number of elections since that time to add resources to in particular public safety.”
Kukulski said every year costs to operate the fire and police departments go up. Every year, the $8.2 million generated by the current levy is buying a little less than what it could buy back in 2004 when the voters last approved a levy.