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Billings city leaders continue push for public safety levy during busy 2020 election season

Posted at 7:03 PM, Aug 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-26 21:04:46-04

Have you noticed those "Vote Yes for Public Safety" signs popping up across Billings?

They are reminding voters about the city's public safety mill levy election next month.

The single-issue election asks Billings voters to consider a new levy to better fund city police, fire and 911 services.

Sixty thousand ballots are waiting to go out in the mail on Friday. Voters have until Sept. 15 to return ballots to the Yellowstone County Elections Office.

"Because of COVID-19, this is not a conversation about adding resources to drive down crime rates and reduce response times," said Chris Kukulski, Billings city administrator. "This is really about retaining the status quo and not sliding backwards."

Kukulski wasn't in Billings in 2014 when the city's last public safety levy went down to defeat. But he knows it was close, within 1,000 votes, and Kukulski hopes this time around, the result will be different.

"I wish I could say we could do it with less people, but this is a people business," explained Kukulski. "When someone dials 911, they want a human being to show up for their emergency. If they're a victim of a crime, they expect someone to take the time and work them through the criminal justice system. It just costs more today than it did 15 or 16 years ago when voters approved the current levy."

With the Billings Police Department now responding to 100,000 calls a year, and the Billings Fire Department handling 17,000 service calls annually, public safety costs are steadily increasing.

Budget-wise, the city's police and fire departments still rely on funding from a 2004 levy that raises $8.2 million per year. The city wants to repeal that fixed amount levy and replace it with one that collects 60 mills worth of property taxes.

"So if the voters say no, we'll continue to collect the $8.2 million fixed amount," said Kukulski. "If they say yes, we'll go 60 mills and as our tax base grows, we will bring in more money to help deal with the increased cost of public safety."

The bottom line for taxpayers is the proposed levy will cost $4.75/month for a median home worth $212,000, or $57 a year. Kukulski hopes city taxpayers will recognize a wise investment when they see it.

"It's an investment worth looking into," Kukulski said. "Public safety has a significant impact on the value of our assets, homes, businesses, and properties. So, to be able to continue to do what these two departments do for us is important."

The bottom line for the city of Billings is that while the cost of providing public safety increases each year, the city's ability to pay for it is stuck at 2004 levels.

Kukulski, Fire Chief Bill Rash, and Police Chief Rich St. John have been traveling to each ward of the city to discuss the proposed mill levy and answer questions from citizens. Wednesday's presentation begins at 7 p.m. at Amend Park and travels to North Park Thursday, also at 7 p.m.

Coming Thursday: Interviews with St. John and Rash about public safety in Billings