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As ballots hit homes, push is on to pass public safety mill levy in Billings

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Posted at 5:22 PM, Oct 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-18 16:08:16-04

BILLINGS - Crime is a problem that almost everyone seems to be concerned about in Billings, but how willing are homeowners to pay more in property taxes to do something about it? That question is now in the hands of voters.

Ballots for the Public Safety Mill Levy in Billings were sent out this week and should now be in your mailbox.

It’s a $7.1 million ask by the city of Billings that will raise your property taxes if you are a homeowner, but supporters say it’s essential as Billings continues to grow and crime continues to increase.

The push is on with city officials taking their campaign for the public safety mill levy to the streets this week.

“I lost track of the number of positive horn honks and thumbs up, so it seems to be really well received. So that’s encouraging,” said Mayor Bill Cole, who could be seen waving a sign on Division Street along with ward one Councilman Mike Yakawich.

It’s impossible to tell if that’s any indication of which way Billings voters are leaning when it comes to the levy, but the mayor says one thing is clear.

“Our crime problem is out of control,” he says.

The mayor says violent crime has increased two-fold in the last decade in Billings with a record 22 homicides last year.

“We need more police officers on the street. We need more evidence clerks. Civilians to support the police. It is going to do that. Also, our city attorneys. This will help fund several additional city attorneys and paralegals. Right now our domestic violence prosecutor has more than 1,200 cases per year. The American Bar Association standard is 400 cases maximum,” said Cole.

If passed, the biggest chunk of the levy money—just under $2.5 million-- would go to police. Twenty-eight full-time employees would be added—half of them sworn officers, the other half civilians.

Another $1.5 million would be invested in the fire department—much of that for the medical response team.

Seven legal positions would be added.

Courts would receive help with an additional judge and staff.

Three more code enforcement officers would be hired.

And $415,000 a year would be spent on mental health and substance abuse services.

The levy would raise taxes on a home valued at $217,000 by about $100 a year. While Billings voters came through in the clutch last year to help plug a deficit in the budget by repealing and replacing the previous levy to generate more money, it may be a tougher sell this year.

“We made it very clear (in the 2020 election) that they were not going to be able to get any additional police officers or firefighters last year. This actually gets us more resources to make a difference to bring those crime numbers down,” says Cole.

“We’ve seen a lot of big-city issues in our community and I feel like we really need to back them. We need to support them. Give them people in the background to support them provide funding for whatever needs they have because helping them helps our city,” said Yakawich.

And while no one wants to pay more in taxes, city officials say they are handcuffed when it comes to finding other ways of funding.

“We don’t have a sales tax. We don’t get income tax. We do get some federal dollars from the state but not very much, so there is no free lunch and when the problem gets to be as bad as it is today and the problem increases, we need those additional resources,” the mayor says.

Q2 will be taking a closer look in the next two weeks at why the people you depend on for protection say passing the Public Safety Mill Levy is so important--- as well as hearing from those on both sides of the issue.

Ballots must reach the Yellowstone County Elections Office by 8 p.m. Nov. 2 to be counted. Voters will also be deciding on several council races as well as questions regarding recreational and medical marijuana businesses within the city.