County approves intent to send public safety levy to ballot; hearing set for Aug. 19
Cascade County Commissioners voted unanimously to adopt a resolution of intent during a July 29 meeting to send a public safety levy to the November ballot.
That starts a public comment period on the proposed $3.52 million levy and a public hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 19.
Commissioners said that they were limited in their ability to fund county services and programs because state law limits their ability to raise property taxes, which are a major funding source for local governments.
Commissioner Don Ryan said that there’s been a slow decline over the years in their ability to hire and provide services with that restriction.
Municipal governments are limited by state law on how much they can raise taxes annually and the rate is half of the three year average of inflation. That typically doesn’t generate much in terms of new tax revenue, but as the national inflation levels rise, those figures could also increase.
Ryan moved to approve the resolution of intent to send the levy to the ballot and said “I hope the voters will take a look.”
He said he asked the sheriff and county attorney’s office to bring a levy proposal to the commission.
Commissioner Jim Larson said that the county doesn’t have enough money for capital improvements and that the levy would be a way to fund public safety and replace the general fund spending with the levy dollars.
Commissioner Joe Briggs said he viewed the potential levy funds as supplemental funding to the public safety departments.
“I don’t want to view this as replacement revenue,” for the general fund dollars that currently go to the sheriff and county attorney offices.
He said that levy, if approved, would be a general levy on all citizens in the county, including those living in the city limits.
City Commissioners have begun preliminary discussions about a potential public safety levy for thy city police and fire departments.
“This is a tough one,” Briggs said.
He said he’d worked to improve economic development in the county and takes it “a little bit as a failure that we’re having to ask the people to do this.”
Sheriff Jesse Slaughter said that they’ve done what they can to be creative with existing funds and grants.
He said they’re losing deputies to other departments after the county invests in their training.
If the levy passes, he said they’d add one deputy as a school resource officer who would work on patrol during the summer.
He said the sheriff’s office is down eight deputies currently.
It’s hard to hire, he said, since their salaries aren’t competitive.
Slaughter said the county provides public safety infrastructure for the city through the jail and county attorneys who handle all the criminal cases.
Deputies presented to the county compensation board in June asking them to raise the sheriff’s salary by 31.5 percent to make it more commensurate with other county department heads and other law enforcement agencies. Deputy salaries are tied to the sheriff’s salary.
The compensation board did not address salaries for the sheriff or deputies during their June meeting.
The county staff report says that the starting salary for a deputy in the county is about 26 percent less than the starting salary at the Great Falls Police department and other competing law enforcement agencies.
The starting salary for deputy county attorneys is about 18 percent less than those starting in the Office of the Public Defender and are 17 percent below the market compensation rate for new prosecuting attorneys in the state, according to the staff report.
“Accordingly, both the Cascade County Sheriffs Office and the Cascade County Attorney’s Office are currently having difficulty hiring and maintaining qualified and skilled deputy sheriffs and deputy attorneys to the extent that both offices are currently understaffed by approximately 20 percent in sworn personnel. Limited resources and personnel also limit the sheriff’s office ability to devote resources and personnel for additional school safety initiatives needed to protect county schools,” according to the staff report.
Several members of the public spoke in favor of the levy during the meeting. Some said they were concerned about the impact of marijuana.
Shane Etzweiler of the Great Falls Area Chamber of Commerce said they support the levy.
Julie Bass, one of the organizers of the marijuana petition in the county, said that they should use COVID relief funds for public safety before taxing people.
Briggs said that the majority of the CARES Act funds went to the sheriff’s office and a chunk of ARPA funds also went to the sheriff’s office.
He said that those funds have specific parameters and since it’s one time money, it “would be foolish for us to use that on salaries.”
County Attorney Josh Racki said that the commission action starts a public comment period at that they’ve created a separate email account that he and Slaughter will monitor and answer questions.
That email is email@example.com.