BILLINGS — Billings city staff have met with Yellowstone County and Billings School District 2 officials to determine the best time to bring a public safety mill levy before voters, City Administrator Chris Kukulski said at a Monday Billings City Council meeting.
Kukulski commended the council's months-long effort on the USS Billings commissioning before adding, "now this needs to be the highest priority of this organization for the next 12 months."
In June, the council adopted a 2020 budget with a $4 million shortfall. Council members have been eyeing a levy to decrease the revenue gap since that vote.
Now the council has the task of scheduling the levy's appearance on the ballot and creating a steering committee to inform the public about why city officials think levy is necessary.
Kukulski and his staff have met with officials from Yellowstone County and School District 2 to make sure the three local governments don't ask for levies at the same time.
"In each of those discussions, we’ve talked deliberately about what do people have on the horizon for levies," Kukulski said. "And we do anticipate that in 2020, School District 2 anticipates a relatively small elementary levy discussion with the public. Followed a year or two later by potentially a much, much larger one regarding the high school."
Kukulski said Yellowstone County does not have any levies on the horizon in 2020.
At the council meeting, Kukulski said it's become common practice now for a successful levy effort to have an independent non-governmental group raising money to help market the need for the levy.
"We as a governmental entity, I as your city administrator and your staff can not use any governmental funds or time in that effort.”
Kukulski said staff can determine the amount asked for in the levy as well as educate the public. But city staff and council members can not advocate for or against the measure on city time.
Council member turnover
Five Billings City Council members are either not running for office or are have reached term limits in 2020.
With the possibility of five new faces on the council, Kukulski pointed out the need for cohesion when it comes to the body's support of the levy.
"Come January, we’re going to have some new people sitting in front of us," Kukulski said. "It is critical that all 11 elected officials are at least willing to agree to disagree that what they came together with is the best alternative to what they had. So that the community understands that what they are being asked to support is at the right level. Otherwise we will be competing with ourselves.
The council now has to get the numbers together to determine what is the right amount to ask from Billings voters. Kukulski spoke of a "baseline" or minimum amount to be requested.
"We’re right now trying to pull together data related to the baseline," Kukulski said. "What are the financial needs if we were to, say, we’re not going to increase service delivery, but we’re going to try to remain status quo? What does that look like from a cost perspective?”
Kukulski and the council are looking for ways to get the public on their side.
"How do we balance this so that 11 months from now we hopefully have asked the public for their support and they have made a decision as to what's best for Billings relative to investing in public safety?" Kukulski said.
Kukulski said there is a work session tentatively scheduled in September for council members and city staff to discuss the levy not at City Hall, but still in Billings.