Commission adopts budget, including intent to raise taxes and plan to close Natatorium
City Commissioners unanimously approved the $117.9 million budget Tuesday, which includes property tax increases and a plan to close the Natatorium by Jan. 1, 2019.
Several members of the public attended the meeting, but no one spoke during the public comment period for the budget. After commissioners made budget comments, Mayor Bob Kelly reopened public comment and Larry Johnson said the city should provide physicals to all employees instead of just firefighters.
John Hubbard, who introduces himself as Johnny Angry at most public meetings, spoke in opposition to increased taxes and a woman in the back row applauded.
The mill levies will be finalized later this fall when the city receives its certified taxable value from the Montana Department of Revenue.
Under the adopted budget, the city will increase taxes $6.14 for the year on a home with a taxable value of $100,000. That includes the inflationary factor and the permissive medical levy.
The budget includes a 5 percent increase for water, 2 percent increase for sewer, 10 percent for storm drain and 5 percent for commercial sanitation. Those proposals will come before the City Commission at a later date, but all will require public hearings.
The budget also includes a 7 percent increase to the Portage Meadows assessment and a 3 percent increase for the boulevard district assessment. The assessments will go before the City Commission in September, as will the newly created Park Maintenance District.
“There are tough decisions in here,” Commissioner Tracy Houck said.
The budget closes the Natatorium and depending on the results of a request for proposals for management of the city’s two golf courses, City Manager Greg Doyon has said on multiple occasions that he will recommend closure of a course.
Anaconda Hills cannot be sold and must be used for recreational purposes in some capacity, according to city staff.
The budget also does not fund the six additional police officers requested by the Great Falls Police Department, the part-time judge requested by the Great Falls Municipal Court or the two additional firefighters requested by Great Falls Fire Rescue.
It does fund occupational physicals for firefighters at $79,487.85; repairs for two fire stations where the sewer has collapsed creating a void under those stations; and $20,000 for tuition assistance for current firefighters pursuing paramedic certification.
Commissioner Bill Bronson told meeting attendees that property taxes generate $19.5 million, but the public safety budget alone is $22.5 million.
“We don’t have enough resources,” to meet all of the public’s expectations for services, he said. “We try to do the best we can with what we have. I think the budget we put together is a good one.”
Again this year, Bronson commented about the limitations on local government from the state legislature for adjusting tax revenue to meet local needs.
Municipalities are capped in raising property taxes each year, which limits their ability to fund infrastructure and service needs, Bronson has said during most budget meetings over the last five years. Changing that would require legislative action at the state level.
Commissioner Mary Moe said she thought there’d be more public comment during Tuesday’s meeting and throughout the process, but her concerns had focused on the Natatorium and the golf program.
“I don’t believe its safety allows us to keep it open,” Moe said of the Natatorium.
The major repairs that would be necessary are cost prohibitive, she said.
The brick facade fell off part of the building in January and the repairs range from $539,834 to $612,526. The other side of the building is showing signs of failure and a number of problems identified in a 2011 study have never been addressed due to lack of funding.
Moe said she wants the city to find alternatives for those who need an indoor pool for health reasons and that she wants to ensure the low to moderate income residents have access to recreational opportunities.
The city is exploring partnership opportunities with other pool facilities in the city, though options are limited.
The city has accepted Medicaid for aquatic/pool therapy programs and several staffers have mentioned that other facilities do the same.
The Electric confirmed with Benefis Health System that “through the Medicaid waiver program, aquatic/pool therapy is covered through a paid membership to the Peak if the patient meets certain criteria, as verified by his or her licensed healthcare provider. There is also a program known as ‘Silver Sneakers’ for patients covered under a certain Medicare Advantage plan, and one of the benefits under that program is the ability to use the Peak at no cost,” according to Benefis.
During Monday’s Park and Recreation Advisory Board meeting, members expressed an interest in finding short-term solutions for pool users such as partnering with the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind, but city pool staff said that pool was too small to provide many options for swimming lessons or other programming.
One board member suggested using the former Nautilus building at 2500 6th Ave. S. since it once had a pool.
The building, built in 1955, is older than the current Natatorium, was built as a grocery store and has been vacant for years.
The property is listed for sale for $590,000 and Mark Macek, the listing agent, told The Electric that “there is no pool in the facility. It is just a shell building with a dirt floor at the moment.”
Commissioners adopted the budget, which funds the Natatorium for the entire year, but City Manager Greg Doyon and Park and Rec director Steve Herrig said they are planning to close the facility by Jan. 1, 2019 because there will be costs with securing the facility and likely demolishing the building. Other city pools have major maintenance needs as well, Doyon said.
Doyon told The Electric that the brick facade on the east side of the building is also failing and the city will likely remove the basketball hoops and fence off the area until the details are finalized for the property.
Doyon and Herrig said there will be minimal impact to full-time pool staff since the city will keep a pools manager, which oversees all of the city’s pools. The second full-time pools position is currently vacant and Doyon said it won’t be filled for now.
Commissioner Owen Robinson said he wants to be able to put more resources into public safety so the fire and police departments can provide a higher level of service.
In recent years, the city funded new fire engines, an additional fire inspector, a new ambulance, new squad vehicle, replacement self-contained breathing apparatus and other equipment needs at fire, and three new police positions, additional facility improvements and equipment for police, but staffing increases have not been to the level the police and fire chiefs have requested.