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Billings passes first public safety mill levy in 16 years Tuesday

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Posted at 8:19 PM, Sep 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-16 00:17:36-04

BILLINGS — Billings voters approved a change to the city’s public safety mill levy Tuesday in a 67% to 33% vote, marking the first time since 2004 that voters have approved a mill levy for public safety.

Initial results from the all-mail municipal election show 20,511 in favor and 9,818 against the measure, according to the Yellowstone County elections web site. The turnout was 43 percent.

Votes dropped off at the Yellowstone County Elections Office on Tuesday will be counted Wednesday due to COVID-19 concerns from the licking of envelopes, according to Bret Rutherford, Yellowstone County elections administrator.

Rutherford said the additional votes are unlikely to change the final result.

The voters' decision repeals and replaces the previous mill levy passed in 2004. The previous levy was capped at the dollar figure of $8.2 million, or 60 mills. Now, the levy will generate $12.2 million for the city at 60 mills.

Billings Mayor Bill Cole hosted a socially-distanced watch party on the lawn to see the results roll in with City Council members and other city staff, including Billings Police Chief Rich St. John. Cole spoke with Q2 shortly after results were released at 8 p.m.

“Not only did the mill levy pass, not only did people stand with their police and firefighters but they did so in resounding terms. I can’t say I was surprised by the result that the levy passed, but I am surprised by the margin. This was more than two to one. That really shows how important public safety is to the citizens of Billings," Cole said.

This new levy caps the mill amount, not the dollar amount. That means the levy’s value won’t be lost over time due to inflation, like the 2004 levy did.

Under the new levy, the owner of a Billings home worth $100,000 will see a $27 increase on their property taxes, totaling $81 per year. The owner of a Billings home worth $200,000 will pay an additional $54 per year for a total bill of $162 per year.

The additional $4 million generated by the new levy will go to fund the Billings police and fire departments.

St. John also thanked voters for their support.

"Very, very thankful that the citizens understood the situation and stepped up and determined what level of public safety they wanted," said St. John.

The chief said he was relieved to not have to go to work in the morning under the shadow of possible cuts since the levy passed.

"Tomorrow morning I can go to work, and we can set ourselves to take care of the things that are really plaguing the city, the violent crime, the methamphetamine, all of the issues that affect our quality of life and liveability," St. John said.

Police, fire and the parks department equally split $750,000 in cuts in June to balance the 2021 city budget. During the budget’s creation over the summer, city leaders worked off the assumption this levy would pass.

The levy that passed Tuesday is about 25 percent of the size that the Council was looking to bring forward earlier in the year. The economic uncertainty brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the Council’s appetite towards a smaller ask.

Previous efforts were looking to expand public safety services for Billings.

In the education campaign before the election, city staff and elected leaders showed data indicating firefighters experiencing increased calls for service and longer response times. The police department has also seen more calls generally increasing crime rates.

“Based on some of the things that are going on in our community, the homicides, the violent crime, the drug activity, if we were to backslide it would be catastrophic. Certainly it’s not where we want to be to grow the department, but under the shadow of COVID-19 and the economic uncertainty, remaining status quo is outstanding and I am very very pleased with that,” St. John said.

The levy essentially allows the city to offer a similar level of service as previous years and not make more cuts to its departments in 2021.

“We’re not adding any personnel, we’re not adding any equipment. It basically allows us to stay status quo with our existing staff. Currently we have 154 sworn officers, probably 25 civilians and we’ll be able to retain all of those without backsliding any of the services that we’re providing right now," St. John said.

The Council is expected to bring another public safety ask before voters at some point in the near future to look at expanding services.

"This is very, very sweet, but it's also a bit sobering because our greater needs for more police officers, more firefighters, more 911 operators, and prosecutors and space for all of them haven't gone away. We still need all of those things. So, it's probably inevitable that we're going to have to come back to the voters at some point in the near future to ask if they will approve even greater spending," Cole said.

RELATED: Billings City Council passes 2021 budget expecting to use $700,000 from reserves