City reevaluating plans for public safety levy

City Commissioners are continuing the discussion of a potential public safety levy and looking at options on the amount and structure of the levy.

During a November meeting, commissioners took their first look at estimates for public safety needs, which were grouped into good, better, best options. At the time, commissioners indicated they were interested in sending the best package, which is an estimated $35 million, to the voters.

But the city finance director burst their bubble when she told them that option would double the city budget and increase taxes to residential property owners by 191 percent.

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City Manager Greg Doyon was out of town for that November work session and during the Dec. 6 work session, he told commissioners he didn’t think that option was palatable or affordable to the community.

He said it was needed, but “it’s such a significant ask, I think it’s very going to be difficult to get support behind that. It’s ideal but I don’t think it’s really the reality.”

Doyon said of the options presented to commissioners, “good was where we should have probably been about 10 years ago, the better is where we need to be today and then some and the best is really going to set the city up for long term success to meet the needs.”

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He suggested the commissioners discuss the needs in more detail with the court, police, fire and legal department heads and look at something between the good and better scenario.

Doyon said the goal in their conversation is to determine the right amount to ask of the public. He said it’s pretty apparent the city has public safety needs, but “what is that sweet spot and how do we get to that.”

Doyon said in his nearly 15 years as city manager, and public safety needs had been part of the budget discussion every year.

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For the most part, when someone calls 911, first responders will show up, Doyon said, but they’ve been strained and the community is starting to see those issues.

He told commissioners they’ve known there’s a service deficit in public safety for years, department heads have been frustrated but have focused on making work with what they have.

But, there’s a chance of them letting things go too long and have something significantly break and the public will ask why they didn’t address it sooner.

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When Doyon arrived, the first priority was extricating the city from the Electric City Power bankruptcy, which took time, and there was a deliberate effort by staff to reduce reliance on the general fund and build capacity in that fund to meet some of the public safety needs.

“It didn’t work,” Doyon said, for a number of reasons.

He said the city has been seeing growth in recent years, which is further straining existing public safety resources, and the public’s expectations for public safety services are changing.

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Commissioner Susan Wolff asked if the city should hire an outside consultant to help poll the city on their interest in a levy. The library foundation recently hired a third party consultant to poll voters about a potential levy. No tax dollars were used for that contract.

“Are we selling our community short by what we think they’re willing to pay,” Wolff asked.

In early November, commissioners told staff they were okay moving forward with releasing the RFP with a cost range of $50,000 to $150,000. They said they’d make decisions after they receive proposals and see numbers for the proposed levy.

On Dec. 14, the city issued a request for proposals seeking “assistance to develop a strategic informational process for Great Falls residents and taxpayers” in accordance with state law.

“A public officer or public employee may not use or permit the use of public time, facilities, equipment, supplies, personnel, or funds to solicit support for or opposition to any political committee, the nomination or election of any person to public office, or the passage of a ballot issue. The desired community education program focus is the impact of passage or failure of a ballot issue on state or local government operations,” according to the RFP.

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During their Dec. 6 work session, Municipal Judge Steve Bolstad discussed challenges in his court, which is in the basement of the Civic Center and flooded in November.

He said they’ve had mistrials because they can’t seat a jury so staff has adjusted and taken on extra duties to remind jurors to show up.

Bolstad said he’d like to hire a jury clerk to handle those reminders, answering questions and handling juries.

This year, the court called about 5,000 names and summoned about 100 people per week.

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He also wants to hire a court office clerk for the increased case load and a compliance clerk to make sure people are complying with their sentences.

This year, the court was up to about 9,000 cases and had 600 citations in November, plus another 7,000 warrants.

Voters approved a change in November to the city charter to add a second Municipal Court judge and commissioners updated the city code to reflect the change. That means more staff and more space needs for the court.

“We’re not looking for a Cadillac, we want to be functional. A court should be dignified, but it should also be humble,” Bolstad said.

Doyon said his goal is to help the commission formulate a proposal for a public safety levy by the end of January.