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Are Billings voters willing to pay more property taxes for more police and fire?

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Posted at 8:03 PM, Oct 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-22 22:03:39-04

Billings city officials have been pushing hard for the public safety mill levy, but the big question is whether homeowners will be willing to pony up more in property taxes for the second straight year to pass it.

Billings’ rising crime rate has been one of the main talking points for those who support the mill levy.

“This is a real big problem for the entire city of Billings," said Mike Nelson, owner of the Northern Hotel and treasurer for Citizens for a Safer Billings, a group that has spent a lot of money campaigning for the $7.1 million levy.

He says he feels optimistic about the chances of the levy passing.

“We need to back the blue by funding the blue, so to speak. We need to be there for the folks who are there for us,” says Nelson, who believes the levy has a holistic approach that will benefit the city on several fronts, not just crime.

Gary Buchanan, a downtown business owner, also believes the levy will be a step in the right direction for the city.

“If I have people that are afraid to park downtown, they need to see cops. And we work very hard on security, but our clients need to know that downtown is safe,” he says.

But while there is concern about rising crime, there are also a lot of people fed up with rising property taxes, especially after voters just passed a replacement levy last year, which raised property taxes to fill a hole in the budget.

“I am concerned about it. I think the city and county buying buildings (such as the recent purchase of the Stillwater Building) is confusing folks. And regardless of whether you are happy about buying new buildings we still need the levy. I think the fact that we had to do something last fall is an issue,” says Buchanan,

This levy would raise property taxes again by about $100 a year on a house valued at $217,000, which the city says is the median home value in Billings.

Dylan Wood says he’s also concerned about crime that he has seen happening in his neighborhood on the northside of Billings since he bought a home there about three years ago. But he doesn’t think the onus for funding should fall entirely on property owners. He says he won’t be voting for the levy.

“I’m all for expanding the police force but I feel like the means to do it isn’t through taxing property owners. I think the means to do it would be maybe through an implemented sales tax of three to five percent. I think that would not penalize just the property owners only but allow everybody who is spending money in Montana to pay their fair share, including people coming in from Wyoming and North Dakota,” says Wood.

Efforts to implement a sales tax or local sales tax option have died in the Montana Legislature, including during the most recent 2021 session, and city officials say that leaves them with no other real option than to raise property taxes for funding.

Along with the public safety mill levy, Billings voters will also be deciding on whether recreational marijuana businesses should be allowed inside city limits and several city council races.

Ballots must be turned into the elections office by 8 p.m., Tuesday, Nov. 2.

See also: Billings police chief says public safety levy would help fight crime
See also: Billings fire chief says public safety levy will add medical response teams
See also: As ballots hit homes, push is on to pass public safety levy in Billings