City takes first look at proposed budget, mayor floats idea of public safety levy

City Commissioners got their first full look at the proposed city budget Thursday for the upcoming fiscal year and it’s largely a status quo budget over last year.

Significant increases to personnel costs through all of the city’s labor agreements, increased health insurance costs, police overtime, municipal election and a major tax protest from Calumet Montana Refining are driving the budget.

Those expenses, coupled with the lack of revenue from the Calumet tax protest and the modest increase in tax revenue otherwise leaves the city with little wiggle room to fund new equipment, personnel or other needs.

One of those major areas is public safety.

For a number of consecutive years, the police and fire departments have requested additional staff.

City budget being developed, no new public safety officers included

In this year’s proposal, Great Falls Police Department Chief Dave Bowen requests for either four or six new officers. Four officers would cost an estimated $350,340 and six could cost an estimated $525,510.

Great Falls Fire Rescue Chief Steve Hester requested six new firefighters for an estimated $471,000.

None of those staffing requests are funded in the proposed budget.

The city budget year runs July 1 through June 30. The commission will again discuss the proposed budget during their July 2 meeting.

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During Thursday’s special commission meeting for budget discussions, Mayor Bob Kelly asked city staff to develop information on what a public safety levy might look like to fund those public safety personnel and possibly the anticipated 911 communication system that’s estimated to be at least $3 million, likely more.

Other commissioners said they would support further discussion about a potential public safety levy.

The proposed budget does include the addition of a part-time judge for Municipal Court to help address the heavy caseload. The position starts in January so it’s partially funded in this year’s budget without having to make other cuts, city officials said.

Municipal Court seeking part-time judge to handle increasing caseload 

The Municipal Court also requested a part-time bailiff to assist the new judge ans that position will be a full-time police officer who serves as bailiff and does other duties as available.

Commissioner Bill Bronson said attention needs to be paid to legislative fixes, including a current interim study looking at state taxation policy and discussion regarding a change to the percentage by which cities and counties can increase taxes.

Montana Sen. Tom Jacobson represents the Great Falls area and is sitting on that committee. He said the idea is to take a comprehensive look at the state’s taxation policy to ensure it’s fair and equitable in distribution.

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Cities are limited in their ability to generate revenue under state law, which allows local governments to levy to generate the amount of property taxes assessed in the previous year, plus one-half the average rate of inflation for the prior three years.

Based on the proposed budget, the inflationary factory for fiscal year 2020 would raise taxes on a property with a taxable value of $100,000 by $2.33 annually. The permissive medical levy, which can only be used to cover employee medical insurance costs, is estimated to increase taxes by $6.31 annually.

That’s an estimated $8.71 annual increase on a property with a taxable value of $100,000.

For comparison, under the proposed budget in Bozeman, residents would see a $121 annual increase, according to the Bozeman Chronicle.

The tax increase from the inflationary factor will raise an estimated $168,142 in revenue for the city.

For comparison, an entry level police officer costs the city $87,585.

The increase in revenue from newly taxable property is roughly $425,000. The permissive medical levy will be an estimated $460,000 increase; and the entitlement share will increase by an estimated $292,005.

The continuing golf course debt is also a financial drain on the city and the golf fund is currently about $1.5 million in the red.

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In February, a private company took over management of the city golf courses and City Manager Greg Doyon said it will likely take a few years to see significant turn around in the golf financials.

Aquatics are another program to watch.

The city is planning to demolish the Natatroium with Community Development Block Grant Funds and start looking at a feasibility study for a combined indoor pool and recreation facility. That process will take several years.

The city has partnered with the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind to run swimming activities out of their indoor pool. But that pool is smaller, limiting revenue opportunity and needed repairs this year since the pool had been empty for some time.

“The operations of that are concerning,” Doyon said.

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The city is looking at options for a $5.5 million bond levy for repairs to the Civic Center, which is cracking and panels could start falling off the building, causing a safety issue and damaging the building for the long term.

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Some recently discovered issues at the Great Falls Public Library are also included in the budget. Funds had been set aside for roof repair, but issues with the air handler and leaking pipes became immediate needs. The library is using some reserve funds and the city is kicking in $65,000 on top of it’s 9-mill contribution and additional $350,000 annually to help with the needed repairs.

This year’s budget includes utility increases and some assessment increases that will be considered as separate items by the City Commission this summer and fall.

The park maintenance district amount is not changing in the proposed budget.

Fee increases are also proposed for the Mansfield Convention Center that will also be considered as a separate action item.