City budget proposal impacted by legislative actions, cuts

Great Falls Commissioners took their first look at the $116 million budget on Wednesday.

That’s down roughly $10 million from last year’s budget, in part due to last year’s $28.6 million price tag for improvements at the water treatment plant.

There’s a lot of meat in this budget, but what it boils down to for taxpayers is a projected $5.06 property tax increase over last year for a property with a $100,000 taxable value.

But on the sunny side, the city paid off its swimming pool bond on Wednesday, knocking off $3.97 annually for a property with a $100,000 taxable value.

That makes a net increase of $1.09 for the next year, or about 9 cents per month.

But, that doesn’t include other assessments and the boulevard district assessment is going up 7 percent, the lighting district is going down 1 percent and the street assessment is staying the same, according to Melissa Kinzler, the city’s fiscal services director. That also doesn’t include the proposed park district.

Park district proposal moving forward, 60-day protest period starts now

A number of the budget decisions in the proposal from City Manager Greg Doyon are related to actions by the Montana Legislature during the last session.

Several of the new laws have created requirements that will add staff, time, resources and more cost to the city while others have directly cut funding to the city.

One of those bills, HB 565, decreased the city’s entitlement share payment by $187,352. That bill was supported by all of the Great Falls area lawmakers.

Another will likely cut library funding this year and next year by $28,000.

Library staff hoping to restore Monday hours

20170519_145928 (1)Another law is halving funding for the state hazmat budget. Great Falls is home to one of the six state hazmat technician teams. Without the funding, teams might stop costly air monitoring, meaning teams won’t know the full reality of what they’re walking into and fire chiefs might not send teams knowing they won’t be reimbursed for their costs.

Fire Chief Steve Hester said it won’t stop their team from going to local incidents, but “it’s going to hurt people in other counties.”

We’ll have more on these legislative actions and associated changes for the city in upcoming stories.

But first, back to what’s in the proposed city budget.

The city is projecting a $2 million increase in the mill levy due to newly taxable property due to industry expansion in the city. But, that’s one of those significant bumps the city gets from time to time that typically aren’t sustained. Over the last 16 years, the average increase for newly taxable property is $402,871.

Because that increase isn’t likely to continue at such high rates, Doyon cautioned the commission that they “don’t want to develop an appropriation we can’t sustain.”

That translates into Doyon not recommending funding for the six new police positions and six new firefighters requested by those departments.

He did recommend funding most of the other requests from those departments for equipment and facility improvements, but hasn’t recommended staffing requests since that would require more than $872,000 this year and every year thereafter.

“I don’t have a clear path to make sure we can fund it,” Doyon said.

New engines rolling at Great Falls Fire Rescue

One rejected staff request the commission is planning to revisit is for a full-time fire inspector in the fire prevention bureau.

Hester said that inspector could help the department catch up on inspections, free up time for the firefighters on shift, assist arson investigations and otherwise support GFFR’s fire prevention efforts.

“Prevention saves lives,” Hester told the commission.

Commissioner Bob Jones said he wanted to look at finding a way to fund that position.

Doyon told Hester to look at the cost of safety inspections, which the fire department conducts, and possibly increase those fees to help cover the cost of the requested fire inspector position.

The fee structure accompanying the code was adopted by the commission in 2007.

City denies appeal over safety inspection certificates

The proposed budget does include $34,100 for annual physicals for firefighters, meeting National Fire Protection Association standards and also help catch serious conditions, like cancer, earlier allowing for treatment, lower costs to the city and potentially saving lives. The screenings could also play into future discussion at the Legislature related to presumptive health coverage for firefighters.

“The work we do is inherently dangerous,” Hester said.

One city firefighter was diagnosed last fall with stage 4 cancer, Hester said, and the annual screenings would also send a message to the firefighters that the city cares about their wellbeing. 20170519_145218

GFFR’s fund request for $100,000 portable radios is not included in next year’s budget since the purchase is able to be funded with dollars from this year’s budget.

The police department request fund for portable radios is $0, but the department got a $140,000 grant that will be applied toward those purchases.

The radios are $5,000 a piece. GFFR needs 20 for a total cost of $100,000 and the GFPD needs 100 for a total cost of $500,000.

Requests from GFFR and GFPD total about $3 million. The recommended funding for those requests is $484,254.

The total cost for fire and police in the general fund for the proposed budget is $21.19 million.

The total projected revenue from property taxes in the general fund is $18.68 million.

Tax revenue makes up 19 percent of total city revenues and special assessments, including the proposed park district, is 8 percent in the proposed budget. Forty-one percent comes from charges for services and one percent comes from fines and forfeitures.

The commission will discuss the budget proposal again at the July 5 work session and likely set a public hearing on the budget for July 18.

We’ll continue to break down the budget, but until then, here’s a few things on the horizon.

  • Utility rates increases will be proposed next spring: 10 percent for water, 10 percent for storm drain and 3 percent for sewer
  • 5 percent increase for residential sanitation will be proposed
  • 50 cent increase will be proposed for neighborhood pools
  • Various fee increases will be proposed for golf
  • City manager will recommend to commission to terminate the lease for the Children’s Museum in 5 years. Doyon said the city will need additional office space, that will give the museum ample notice and he can’t imagine asking for an addition to the Civic Center