City adjusting plans for proposed public safety levy

City Commissioners continued their discussion of the proposed public safety levy during their Jan. 3 work session.

Great Falls Police Department Chief Jeff Newton presented on the needs for his department in a revised proposal totaling $4.46 million for what he called the Good+ option in the city’s good, better, best funding categories.

Based on the presentations in recent months from police, legal, Municipal Court and the Great Falls Fire Rescue, commissioners estimated they need to pursue an estimated $12 million public safety levy.

In December, GFFR presented their Good+ proposal, which totaled about $5.28 million.

City legal, fire discuss options for public safety levy

Commissioner Joe McKenney said even with the Good+ options, the city’s public safety operations would be “just treading water. We’re not doing a lot. But we’re doing what we can as a community.”

Initially, during a November meeting, commissioners had said they wanted to pursue the Best option, which was an estimated $35 million levy that would have doubled the city budget.

They considered that until the city finance office told them that option came with a roughly 191 percent tax increase.

McKenney said that based on community feedback, the option was “out the window.”

City reevaluating plans for public safety levy

Based on calculations the finance office provided to commissioners in November, a $12 million levy would be an estimated 65 percent increase.

That would be an estimated increase of $156.82 on a $100,000 house and an increase of $313.65 on a $200,000 house, according to the city finance office.

Staff will develop the proposal with those numbers and draft language and discuss again in February.

To place the question on the November ballot, commissioners must pass a resolution no later than 85 days before the election, according to state law.

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The proposed $12 million public safety operations does not include any potential facility bonds for infrastructure improvement, such as new fire stations, which are an estimated $10 million each.

During the Jan. 3 meeting, Newton told commissioners that his request was for 22 officers, their equipment and training; vehicles; two 911 dispatchers and one 911 work station; a crime analyst; one records technician; and one evidence technician.

Newton told commissioners that based on the hiring and training cycle, it would take about 4.5 years to bring the department up by those 22 officers if everything else stayed normal.

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The hiring cycle is 371 days, Newton said, from the opening of applications to completing field training. The state operates the law enforcement training academy and only runs three sessions annually. GFPD reserves four spots per session, but doesn’t always have enough applicants to fill them, so that’s a max of 12 new hires annually.

Newton said hiring has been a challenge that isn’t unique to GFPD.

In their recent testing cycle, 60 people applied, but only eight showed up to take the test, Newton said.

Of the four candidates who progressed, Newton said he could only hire one since the other three failed to pass the background test.

City officials continue discussion of potential public safety levy

Newton said the department has been losing about seven officers annually, due to retirements or resignations.

They’ve been working to keep even a minimum amount of officers on the street, he said.

Due to staffing shortages, Newton listed the programs that have been cut in recent years, which include:

  • Data driven approach to traffic and safety, or DDACTS
  • DARE, drug abuse and resistance education
  • law related education in high schools
  • dedicated downtown officer
  • special projects unit
  • motorcycle unit
  • drug and patrol K9s
  • attendance at neighborhood council meetings
  • U.S. Marshal task force officer
  • rotational detective assignment
  • community and business safety/security presentations
  • community policing events such as coffee with a cop

If the levy were to pass and GFPD could add officers, “some we can bring back, but some we’re going ot have to live without,” Newton said of the eliminated programs.

GFPD facing staffing shortage, temporarily dissolving BRIC officer, changing shift schedules [2018]

Newton said they tracked officer time over three months for 12 patrol officers. Their time broke down to 28 percent being dispatched to calls as the primary officer; 17 percent writing reports; 13 percent dispatched as the backup officer; 22 percent on other such as briefings, investigation follow-up, checking in evidence; 10 percent break/lunch and 10 percent on proactive enforcement.

He said that of a 10 hour, 40 minute shift, officers spend about 64 minutes on proactive enforcement.

“Officers are basically going call to call to call to call,” Newton said. “There’s not much more tightening left.”

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The GFPD is set up using a squad structure and a squad should include seven officers and three squads per day.

He said the actual coverage due to vacancies, injuries, illness, vacation, etc., is five officers per squad.

Newton’s plan with the proposed levy would increase squads to nine officers, with an additional supervisor per squad and two floating supervisors, which would enable officers to spend more time on proactive patrols and improve response times.

City Commission has yet to prioritize crime task force recommendations, continues discussion

Newton reminded commissioners that any additional personnel at GFPD will impact the city legal office and Municipal Court.

Newton said they have five general case detectives who handled 174 cases in 2021, a 28 percent increase over 2020.

Those cases included homicides, suspicious deaths, missing persons, fraud, felony theft, arson, burglary and they assist on fatal vehicle crashes.

Those cases, especially homicides, are labor intensive requiring lots of search warrants and other paperwork that could stack up to about three feet, he told commissioners.

City takes first look at proposed budget, mayor floats idea of public safety levy [2019]

There was a 7 percent decrease from 2020 to 2021 in special victim unit cases, Newton said, which was 302 cases.

He attributed that decrease to COVID since students weren’t in school were mandatory reporters were seeing and noticing any issues. He said the case numbers increased again in 2022.

GFPD has five SVU detectives and those cases include adult sex offenses, child sex offenses, child physical abuse, sex or violent offender registry violations, drug endangered children, human trafficking and prostitution, internet crimes against children and suspicious injuries.

Aggravated assaults have trended upward, with an eight-year average of 159. In 2022, there were 193. In 2021, there were 218, according to Newton’s data.

Those include aggravated assault, assault with a weapon, assault on a minor, partner family member assault strangulation, assault on peace officers.

Traffic stops were down in 2022 with 4,147 from 5,025 in 2021. The high was in 2019 with 8,732 traffic stops.

They were down 37 percent in 2022 over the six-year average, Newton said.

He attributed that reduction to the lack of time officers have for proactive work since they’re busy running calls, they don’t catch as many traffic violations.

Newton’s proposal includes adding two 911 dispatchers since they provide services to GFPD, GFFR, rural fire, medical and the Cascade County Sheriff’s Office.

He said they’re down six dispatchers currently.