BILLINGS — Members of the Billings City Council and its departments continued discussions about how to fix a $2 million shortfall in the public safety and general funds at the Lincoln Center School District Board Room Monday night.
“We’re looking for help from you (council) tonight to understand where you want to go,” Billings City Administrator Chris Kukulski said at the start of discussions.
Council, city staff and department heads worked with information from a PowerPoint presentation containing information about police and fire response times, initial estimates of how much more money the city may ask of taxpayers and how the city compares to others of similar size.
One option to fund public safety in Billings is a mill levy. Votes last passed a public safety mill levy in 2004.
To decide what to pay for with the levy money, city staff broke out the expenses by what the city would like to immediately have, and what it would like to have in five years. (Slides 48-50)
City staff prepared estimates of how much more the owner of a home worth $200,00 would pay per year in property tax. Over five years, the owner of a $200,000 home would pay a total of $315.90 in new property taxes.
The above numbers would bring in about $25 million in new revenue over five years if the city were to go the route of a mill levy.
Discussions also turned to other ways the city can bring in money to fund public safety.
Billings Ward 2 representative council member Frank Ewalt brought up using a deductible system, similar to insurance companies, to charge homeowners directly for police and fire services.
“I don’t think it should all be on the back of the taxpayers," Ewalt said. "Most of us have casualty policies on our house, and when the hail hit this year they said, okay you’ve got a deductible we’ve got to withhold on your payment. We can do the same thing with calls on fire and police. What we have now is an insurance policy, but if you have a call you would have to make a payment.”
Ewalt went on to describe how he had heard from 9-1-1 dispatch at the last public safety discussion. Dispatch staff have seen an increase in need for ambulance and fire for incidents people in the past would have handled themselves.
“Maybe there’s no reason to have so many calls, and maybe if we had a deductible set amount for certain calls," Ewalt said. "We may cut back on come of the calls that are not necessary, but we still send a fire truck or a police cruiser out there when it wasn’t really needed. I think that would be a good source. There’s money sitting there that we aren’t using.”
Billings Ward 3 representative Chris Friedel later voiced a similar idea.
"What if we attempted to use what people pay in taxes as a deductible of what the products cost?" Friedel said. "For instance, if a fire call costs the fire department $3,000, you pay $500 in taxes. So what we would do is we would bill them $2,500 for that. So what would happen is, if you called out for a simple thing like, I dropped my (remote) controller. And that cost us $500 to pick your controller up, you pay $300 in taxes, we send you a bill for $200. And if you don’t use it all it’s just like insurance, you pay a fee to have active service. I thought that was an interesting concept."
A portion of the conversation focused on how the police and fire departments could define a set of goals to show the public a tangible increase in safety.
"For us, objective dictates tactics," Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said. "If you tell us (police) what it is, whether it’s you (council), the public, administration what it is you want done with the resources that we have, then we will go forth and do the very best."
The fire department could set a goal of lowering the overall response time across the city.
"In reality that number (response time), if you put it in the words of somebody’s life or somebody’s property, somebody’s well being or rescue or whatever it is. It is very significant. Thirty seconds is everything, if you are ever on the receiving end. That’s why we focus on response time,” said Assistant Fire Chief Matt Hoppel.
Over time, the goals could be looked at to give the public an idea if their investment in public safety was worthwhile.
No final decisions were made at the work session Monday night. However the council is looking to move forward with some sort of public safety solution, whether it be a levy on the ballot, or the creation of a public safety district, at some point in 2020.