City legal, fire discuss options for public safety levy

Updated 1 p.m. Dec. 22

City officials continued their discussion of the potential public safety levy during their Dec. 20 work session.

City public safety officials, as well as county, state and federal officials, spent months last year discussing their needs and challenges during the city’s safety task force meetings.

The task force made recommendations to the commission in November 2021.

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For most of this year, they’ve discussed the need for a public safety levy to fund police, fire, legal and Municipal Court.

City staff put together packages of their personnel, equipment, infrastructure and other needs and developed cost estimates based on options categorized as good, better and best.

In November 2022, staff presented those categories to commissioners with cost estimates.

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At the time, commissioners said they wanted to pursue the best option until the finance office explained the cost impact to taxpayers, which would have been an estimated 191 percent tax increase.

When City Manager Greg Doyon returned to town, he told commissioners in a work session that was not likely to be palatable to the taxpayer and that they should look at a different mix of options.

During both of the December work sessions, city legal, fire and Municipal Court officials laid out their needs, challenges and proposed personnel and equipment requests for the levy.

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During the Dec. 20 meeting, the city legal department discussed their heavy caseload, which is second only to Billings in the state in total, but their caseload per attorney is the highest in the state.

David Dennis, who assumed the role of city attorney in November, said that in 2021:

  • Great Falls had 10,107 violations filed; three prosecutors; 3,369 violations per prosecutor
  • Billings had 14,837 violations filed; six prosecutors; 2,472 violations per prosecutor
  • Bozeman had 4,666 violations filed; four prosecutors; 1,167 violations per prosecutor
  • Missoula had 8,437 violations filed; six prosecutors; 1,406 violations per prosecutor

Dennis said that Bozeman has two Municipal Court departments and Missoula has three.

Great Falls has one, but voters recently approved the addition of a second judge and commissioners amended the city code to establish to court departments.

“It’s a daunting number,” Dennis said of the caseload.

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Those cases are all misdemeanors but include infractions such as multiple DUIs, stalking, sex assault, assault, theft and indecent exposure.

He said many people pay their fines or plead guilty right away in Municipal Court, but those that don’t, require building case files, discovery and more hearings for the city prosecutors, and some go to trial.

Dennis said that the three criminal attorneys often have to prosecute dozens of cases per day on trial days and rarely have time to prepare beforehand.

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“It’s a very very stressful kind of practice. They’re in court all the time, they’re always under the gun,” Dennis told commissioners. “The volume of work that they have is extraordinarily stressful.”

On Dec. 19, the court handled more than 100 omnibus hearings, Dennis said.

City Manager Greg Doyon told commissioners that they also need to be cognizant of the impact to victims.

Dennis said the city’s legal office, which includes three criminal attorneys, two civil attorneys, four and a quarter staff, for a total of nine and a quarter, is “extremely overworked.”

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Dennis was hired at the city earlier this year as the deputy city attorney, but was named city attorney when Jeff Hindoien left in the fall. The deputy position has not yet been filed.

He said they were close to hiring a fourth criminal attorney, but could use a fifth.

His office serves every city department, including litigation, advising and reviewing contracts.

Last year, he said the city attorney signed 93 contracts.

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Dennis said that to sign off on a contract, he expects and thinks others would, that they carefully review those contracts with a view toward protecting the city and that takes time.

The good, better, best options for legal including adding prosecutors, paralegals and support staff.

The court and legal department also need more space for any additional staff, Dennis and Municipal Court Judge Steve Bolstad told commissioners.

Doyon said the city has retained an architect to begin looking at remodeling the basement for court.

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He reminded commissioners that they’d been looking at purchasing another property for court, but COVID impacts of increased costs and supply chain issues, they’ve gone back to looking at remodeling existing space.

Doyon said they’re looking at using the Missouri Room for court and there was a request to put a courtroom in the proposed evidence addition at the police department, but that’s not recommended for security reasons.

A stand alone new court is an estimated $6.5 million, Doyon said.

For now, he’s capped the court project at $3.5 million and not using more COVID money due to increasing costs and other issues that have arisen with other projects.

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There are multiple renovation projects underway at the Civic Center, but Doyon has said for years that they’re running out of space to work efficiently.

During the Dec. 20 meeting, Great Falls Fire Rescue Chief Jeremy Jones also walked commissioners through their needs and estimated costs.

Jones said their work is time sensitive, highly technical and labor intensive.

He said they need to add more firefighters, but that also requires more equipment, vehicles and space.

Jones said the last major impact to fire operations was in 1970 when the city funded the fire stations and training center and the department had 76 firefighters.

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By 1989, they’d had cuts and dropped to 60 firefighters, the level where they remain today.

There also wasn’t a sustainment plan for repairing and replacing fire engines or other apparatus, which are expensive.

“We’ve been in crisis management mode my whole career,” in terms of when fire engines go bad and how to handle it, he said.

Jones said they’ve been lucky with grants to replace fire engines and self contained breathing apparatus, but they can’t plan strategically when relying on grants that might not get awarded.

He said he has $50,000 in GFFR’s annual budget for facilities maintenance.

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The city has been using ARPA funds for major infrastructure work at the fire stations, but that is only addressing issues and not brining them up to current needs, he said. It’s also hard to plan for a new fire station without knowing if they’ll be able to keep the existing stations operational.

Jones adjusted his initial good, better and best options to create good-plus, which includes more firefighters and establishes a fleet replacement fund.

This option would add three additional engine companies daily to handle the increased emergency call volume and needs capacity, Jones said.

An engine company is three people.

That option is a $5.28 million annual cost for the proposed public safety levy.

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Fire station construction is another estimated $10 million that would likely require a facility bond, he said.

“That’s a lot of money, no doubt about it,” Jones said.

To consider other options, Jones said GFFR has researched and found modular fire stations that cost an estimated $3 million to $3.5 million and are quicker to construct.

Doyon said to understand how public safety needs became so dire, much dates back to the Electric City Power bankruptcy.

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He said that derailed much of the city’s funding, but they’ve tried to add personnel or equipment when possible.

The city undertook some station improvements a few years ago, but it uncovered more problems at one station that required closing the station and significantly more cost than expected.

Mayor Bob Kelly said they’d digest the information from the work session and continue the discussion at the January work sessions.