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Billings City Council targeting ask for public safety levy

Average homeowner would pay $296 more annually
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Posted at 11:33 PM, Feb 03, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-04 16:27:54-05

BILLINGS — The Billings City Council Monday directed city staff to see what increasing the average homeowner's property by $296 per year- about $25 a month- would do to improve public safety in Billings.

The City Council has been wrestling with a $5 million shortfall in the general and public safety funds for about a year.

The city staff identified about seven potential revenue sources to potentially shrink the budget shortfall, although some are more likely to help fill the budget gap immediately:

  • Impact fees
  • Charge Yellowstone County residents more for fire department service
  • Increase municipal fines
  • Create a public safety district
  • Charge for first responder services
  • Run a public safety mill levy
  • Try to change state tax structure to better benefit Billings

The Council directed staff to explore three of the seven potential revenue sources.

First, the council wants to explore increasing the fines for municipal infractions like parking and speeding tickets. The current fee is $110, and the staff's proposal would add $50 to make the total $160.

The Council would only have to ask the city judge to increase fine amounts for infractions for this to take effect. City staff estimated the fee increase would bring the city about $200,000 per year.

The second revenue generator would be the creation of impact fees on new development. Billings Mayor Bill Cole predicted implementing those impact fees would be challenged by developers and lengthen the time to approve them.

The third revenue source is raising the cost of service for people that live in Yellowstone County, but receive fire service from the city of Billings. Those residents live in what is called the Billings Urban Fire Service Area or BUFSA.

The talk in the Council is that fees charged to BUFSA residents could be higher. The formula hasn't changed for how the BUFSA rate is calculated since it was created in the 1980s, City Administrator Chris Kukulski said. The city would have to wait for the yearly contract to expire to make any fee increases.

Kukulski estimated changing what the BUFSA is charged could bring in $100,000-$200,000 per year.

At the meeting, the council members were working off new PowerPoint slides. The slides contained possible levy numbers worked up from previous council discussion.

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To do the bare minimum of filling the existing $5 million budget gap without increasing public-safety services, the owner of a $211,000 home would pay an extra $141 per year in property tax, Kukulski's staff calculated. The $211,000 figure is the median value of a house in Billings.

If the city were to get everything staff say it needs- including about 40 more police officers, fixing fire station deferred maintenance, adding and staffing a Fire Station 8, adding more prosecutors and court space, adding code enforcement resources, addressing city hall space needs, and adding money for mental health resources- the hike for the average homeowner would be $296 annually.

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At the end of the meeting, the council directed staff in a 6-5 vote to further explore the approximate levy number of $296 and what the city could get if that money were to be levied from the taxpayers.

Time is running out for the council to decide how a public safety mill levy will take shape. Kukulski said June 8 is the drop dead day the Council must make a first reading of the ballot language in order for it to make it to the voters in November.