It’s no secret that crime is on the rise in the city of Billings. This year the police department is on pace to respond to 100,000 calls, and last year the city set a record for homicides with 22.
“Unequivocally, I can tell you that officer presence deters crime,” Billings Police Chief Rich St. John said Thursday.
The $7.1 million public safety mill levy, if passed, will help accomplish that to a certain extent. It would add 28 full-time positions to Billings police—14 sworn officers and 14 civilian employees.
“If we can do whatever we can to free up officers, so they are proactive, spend a little time in neighborhoods or on patrol whether on foot, bike, or in the car, it is going to make a difference because we know that it helps with the deterrence,” says St. John.
The largest portion of the levy money,$2.45 million, would go to the police department. The rest would be divided among fire, legal, courts, code enforcement, and mental health and substance abuse services.
“We are intrinsically linked to one another. You cannot change anything be it add or take it away in the criminal justice system and not have it affect someplace else,” says St. John.
One telling example is domestic violence cases in Billings
“Forty-six percent of domestic abuse victims, whether it is the outright assault or violations or restraining orders anything in that domestic field, their cases don’t get filed. Forty-six percent of those victims don’t get justice because we are not properly resourced. On the front end, it’s our officers that are handling the cases and turning those in for review and to be taken care of,” says St. John.
The chief says even code enforcement can make a difference when it comes to crime.
“Let a blighted property get run down, let it get inhabited by transients, eventually more nefarious activity is going to take place.”
If the levy doesn’t pass, the difference may not be felt right away, but the chief says it eventually will.
“We are very good stewards with the money that we are given. I’m very thankful community has been good to us; however, we are growing, and the public is ultimately going to decide what level of public safety they want. When you are looking at double- and triple-digit increases in violent crime that is unacceptable,” the chief says.
While rising crime is a concern for many here in Billings, so are rising property taxes. If the levy is passed, it would raise taxes on a house valued at $217,000 by about $100 a year.
Billings Mayor Bill Cole says the city is essentially handcuffed by state law when it comes to raising revenue.
“We don’t have a sales tax. We don’t get income tax. We do get some federal dollars from the state but not very much, so there is no free lunch and when the problem gets to be as bad as it is today and the problem increases, we need those additional resources,” the mayor says.
Ballots must reach the Yellowstone County Elections Office by 8 p.m. Nov. 2 to be counted. Voters will also be deciding on several City Council races as well as questions regarding recreational and medical marijuana businesses within the city.