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Billings City Council mulling when to put public safety mill levy on the ballot

Posted at 11:19 PM, Jul 01, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-17 14:48:37-04

BILLINGS – Billings City Council members discussed Monday when to bring a public safety mill levy before Billings voters.

The proposed levy will help the council shrink a $4 million shortfall in the general and public safety funds in 2020.

The Council has a few options of when to put the levy on the ballot.

First, the Council could try to put the levy on the Nov. 5, 2019, general election ballot.

To do this, the Council would have to amend the city charter by raising the cap on the number of mills generated from taxpayers. Raising the mill cap isn’t unheard of. The last public safety mill levy approved by voters in 2004 went through the same process.

To amend the charter, the Council would need to conduct a public hearing and approve the first reading of the ordinance at least 85 days before election day. That deadline is July 22.

Next, the Council would need to bring ballot language to the Yellowstone County Elections Office no later than Aug. 12.

Putting the levy on the November 2019 ballot gives an advantage to the Council. The ballot would be easy for voters to read, because it’s an off-year election with mostly levy and city council races.

The disadvantage – there would be less time to educate the public about the need for the levy. Council member Mike Yakawich is in favor of moving quickly.

“Strategically, I don’t know if we have to do a hard sell on the community. They know we need it,” Yakawich said at the Monday meeting. “Why not consider fast-tracking this a little bit more? There’s not a lot of stuff going on in November. Next year, you’re going to have a lot more going on with the primary and general elections.”

Council member Denise Joy disagrees. She said her constituents don’t seem to know the budget problems Billings is facing.

“Just talking to people, I haven’t heard the idea that public safety is in trouble,” Joy said. “It hasn’t really sunk down to a lot of people. They haven’t been talking about that at all. In fact, when I’ve talked about it, they’re quite surprised that our public safety hasn’t been really funded the way it should be. I think there is quite a bit of education that needs to go into this.”

The Council could decide to wait to put the levy on the ballot until the primary or general elections in 2020.

This would allow the Council more time to meet with  U.S. Attorney Kurt Alme and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area Task Force to see how much money will be needed to help with problems those agencies are facing.

Council member Reg Gibbs thinks the council should get its ducks in a row before bringing the levy to voters.

“How I look at this is: Establish everything we want to get done,” Gibbs said. “Then if we can get it done right by June, let’s do it. If we can’t, let’s wait till November. Again, we have one shot at it. It’s been five years since we’ve lost the last election. I would worry if this does fail that it is going to really leave us lurching trying to figure out how we’re going to fund everything.”

In 2014, voters turned down a public safety levy that would have funded new police officer and fire department positions. About 48.5 percent voted yes.

Waiting until 2020 is the cheaper option because the city will only have to pay a portion of the costs associated with delivering ballots to voters.

If the election is held in 2019, the city would likely bear almost all the costs.

Monday’s council meeting was only a work session, and no action was taken on the levy.