City considering $35 million public safety levy
City Commissioners have spent more than a year discussing recommendations from their crime task force and months talking about the possibility of a public safety levy.
During their Nov. 15 meeting, they got their first look at potential options and costs that the city police, fire, legal and Municipal Court offices grouped into what they called good, better and best groupings.
Commissioner Joe McKenney said that he would call “good horribly lacking, better insufficient and best gets the job done, it gets us where we need to be. Best gets us where we should have bene all along and we probably need more than that.”
The best package of additional public safety resources is an estimated $33 million $36 million annual levy, not including the recommended two new fire stations for another $20 million.
Staff used $35 million to do tax calculations.
Multiple other commissioners agreed that was the option to strongly consider sending to voters on a 2023 ballot since the city is growing and public safety resources are already strained.
“I don’t want to kick the can down the road any longer, so I think we start with best,” McKenney said.
No decisions were made during the work session and commissioners will discuss the potential public safety levy again during their Dec. 6 work session.
Commissioners will go through a public process that includes public hearings and voting on a resolution to send any public safety levy to the ballot in either the school ballot in the spring or the November 2023 election, which will also include the mayor’s seat and two city commission seats.
The joint city-county public library is also pursuing a levy but has not yet determined when to send the question to voters and the Great Falls Public Schools district has not yet determined if they’ll pursue a levy next year.
The city’s general fund budget this year is $36 million and of that, $27.4 million were budgeted for police and safety. This year’s city tax revenue is projected at $22.9 million.
Melissa Kinzler, city finance director, said that if the commissioners ask for the $35 million public safety levy they’d be doubling the city budget and that would increase taxes to residential property owners by 191 percent.
A $35 million public safety levy would add $914.81 annually to the taxes on a house with a $200,000 market value, according to calculations from the city finance office.
Cascade County voters approved this month a $2.46 million public safety levy to increase salaries for deputies, county attorneys, and adding pre-trial services and a school safety program.
The county won’t see that increased revenue until 2023 and if city voters were to approve a public safety levy in 2023, the city wouldn’t received the revenue until 2024.
City staff also put together packages of public safety resources for a good option at $10 million to $12 million or a better option for $22 million to $25 million.
The city’s $35 million best public safety levy proposal includes:
Great Falls Fire Rescue
- 52 additional firefighters which would include:
- initial safety equipment, personal protective equipment, uniforms needed
- additional driver/operators
- additional supervisors
- a paramedic in charge
- annual occupational physicals
- more safety equipment
- more building maintenance
- additional fire engines and vehicles
- a deputy chief of fire prevention
- and two new fire stations (but that estimated $10 million per station and land acquisitions costs are not included in the $35 million) or retrofit all four existing stations to accommodate additional personnel
Great Falls Police Department
- Sworn Officer Positions (38) salary/benefits:
- 20 patrol officers
- 6 patrol supervisors
- 1 crisis intervention officer
- 2 HIDTA Task Force officers
- 3 general case investigators
- 1 Safe Trails Task Force officer
- 2 Special Victims Unit officers
- 2 support staff officers
- 1 HIDTA lieutenant
- Sworn officer additional costs:
- equipment and training for 31 new officers
- 15 new patrol vehicles added to fleet
- 7 civilian positions salary/benefits:
- 4 911 dispatchers
- 1 crime analyst
- 1 evidence staff member
- 1 records bureau member
- Civilian positions additional costs:
- 2 additional 911 Center work stations
- Expansion/renovation to accommodate personnel
Great Falls Municipal Court
- 1 courtroom clerk senior
- 1 compliance officer
- 2 court office clerks
- 1 jury clerk
- furniture, fixtures, equipment, training
City legal/prosecutor’s office
- 1 civil attorney
- 2 prosecutors
- 2 paralegals
- 2 support staff members for increase in citations: with 20 officers added to patrol there’s the potential of additional 37,40 annual citations
- 1 records staff position – for auto accident reports that would reside in the police department
- a prosecution management software platform
- furniture, fixtures, equipment, training
- office renovation/expansion/relocation
Deputy City Manager Chuck Anderson said city staff factored in 10 percent cost increases annually through 2024 to develop their estimates but said that number was probably conservative as costs have been rising.
Commissioner Eric Hinebauch said he believes the city is at a critical point and “if we don’t address this now, it’s going to start costing us and the citizens of Great Falls in other ways.”
Mayor Bob Kelly said the city is seeing growth and that they need to be ahead of that.
“I think what you’re hearing, lets pursue the best option that’s there,” he told staff.
After hearing the potential impact to taxpayers of the $35 million public safety levy, Commissioner Joe McKenney said “doing the right think takes courage.”
He and Commissioner Rick Tryon said the commission wasn’t making the decision but instead asking the community to decide if they’re willing to pay more to improve public safety.
McKenney said the city has been growing which would expand the taxable values for the city and increase tax revenue.
Kinzler cautioned commissioners on that point since there are a lot of variables that affect tax revenue for the city, including tax abatements.
In May, commissioners unanimously approved a tax abatement for Calumet Refining that equates to the loss of an estimated $2.77 million in property tax revenue over the next decade, according to staff calculations.
In April, they approved a tax abatement for The Gibson hotel renovation downtown that at the current tax rate and estimated post-construction appraisal values, the city estimates its lost tax revenue to be about $109,620 during the first year. The city estimates its lost tax revenue over the five year abatement to be about $328,860, according to the staff.
They also approved an abatement for the Great Falls Clinic expansion project that city staff estimate will reduce the general fund by about $397,168 over five years for this abatement.
City staff said once those abatements end, the projects are likely to generate additional tax revenue for the city.
Kinzler said that “just because you see growth does not mean you’re going to get a huge taxable valuation increase.”
She said the Legislature could also make changes to tax structures and classifications of taxable property that could impact the city’s general fund revenue.
Kinzler reminded commissioners that there’s already a shortfall in the city general fund that was shored up this year with COVID relief funds and reserves. She said that they should keep in mind current shortfalls, needs and increasing costs such as the three police officers that were added with a grant that’s amount decreases annually until the city absorbs the full cost.
Tryon said that “people are going to scream bloody murder when they see” the 191 percent tax increase for a $35 million public safety levy. “People are not going to like it.”
“But it’s up to the people to decide,” Tryon said.