City finalizing plans for public safety levy
City Commissioners are honing their proposed public safety levy.
They discussed the proposal again with city officials during their Jan. 17 work session.
City Manager Greg Doyon gave commissioners a condensed version of everything discussed over the last few months to help them “start to narrowly focus” on what they wanted to present to the community.
He said his goal during the meeting was to get commissioners to agree on a number for the operational levy.
Commissioners are also looking at a separate facility bond.
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Commissioners didn’t make any changes to Doyon’s numbers presented during the meeting.
That proposal includes a $10,486,840 operational public safety levy for fire, police, legal and Municipal Court staffing and equipment.
The proposed facilities bond is $21,172,564 for fire, police and legal since the court renovation is included as a project for ARPA funds.
Combined, those total $31,659,404.
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Staff said they recommend making the operation and facility bond requests as separate actions on the ballot.
Staff are drafting potential ballot language for the next commission work session.
To send the question to the ballot, commissioners must hold a public hearing and approve the ballot language that would then be sent to the county elections office.
If approved, the operational levy would be assessed annually. The facilities bond would have a 5 percent annual debt service payment over 20 years.
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Commissioners said they’d prefer to use mills for the levy versus a set dollar amount since as the value of a mill increases, which isn’t always the case, the city might generate more money and have a buffer for increasing costs.
If they levy a set dollar amount, that doesn’t change annually and gives the city no wiggle room with increased costs.
With a mill levy, they also have the option to not assess the full mill amount during the annual budget process, according to city officials.
If approved, the estimated annual tax impact on city taxes is:
Great Falls Fire Rescue is proposing $14,355,564 in capital improvements for the facility bonds, including $10 million for a fifth fire station and the rest for a one-time buy-in to create an revolving schedule for fire engines, apparatus and equipment.
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Great Falls Police Department is proposing $6.5 million to reconfigure the existing building to maximize space for personnel and operations. That’s in addition to the $4.4 million in ARPA funds planned for an expansion to the existing GFPD building for evidence processing and storage.
City officials are looking at options for adding Municipal Court space, which is included in ARPA projects. Those options include the possibility of converting the Missouri Room, where many meetings and events are held in the Civic Center, into court space, freeing up space in the basement for legal staff.
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GFFR Chief Jeremy Jones said that they’re considering a pre-fabricated modular fire station option, but they don’t know land costs yet. If they come in under $10 million for a fifth fire station, anything remaining would be investing into improving the existing four stations to extend their lifespan.
If the operational levy passes, the city won’t receive any of the revenue until November 2024 when the first tax payments are made.
Jones said that if the operational levy passes, they’re planning to a major hiring influx in January 2025, but that’s dependent entirely on the applicant pool. He said their goal is to have the 32 new firefighters hired within 12 months.
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He said that the three major areas of concern during the city’s last ISO rating, which affects homeowners insurance, were the lack of coverage, aerial capability and staffing.
With the new firefighters and a fifth, Jones said they’d be able to address all three of those issues.
“We believe we can address the response time component,” without building a sixth station, getting them into the future.
He said 45 percent of their calls come out of District 1, so when a second call comes in, it pulls a fire engine from another district, affecting response times throughout the city.
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With the additional firefighters and units staffed in Station 1, GFFR could address that issue, Jones said.
He said the data and need shows they need two new stations, but it’s too hefty of an ask for the community right now.
The proposed public safety levy “is a major step over the last 53 years,” Jones said.
City Attorney David Dennis said that the public safety levy would increase their staffing to be able to try cases more effectively, improve communication and help the Municipal Court speed their operations and reduce the strain from the heavy case load. It would also improve their ability to take code enforcement cases.
“We simply don’t have the resources to allow a second municipal court to achieve the efficiencies you want it to achieve,” Dennis told commissioners.
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GFPD Chief Jeff Newton said that if the operational levy passed, they’d have more officers in the field, improve response times and increase their ability to investigate cases.
He said currently they’re triaging cases so things like property crimes, even felony cases, get bumped since crimes against persons take priority.
But, based on the hiring cycle and applicant pool, it will take an estimated 4.5 years to put all new 22 officers on the street.
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That will also increase radio traffic and the need for the new dispatchers to be hired, he said. They’re also facing lag times with equipment. As an example, Newton said he ordered new radios a few months ago that might arrive by June.
Newton said that the new evidence building will meet their needs for the next 10-15 years and they estimate the proposed building renovations from the facility bond would last about the same about of time.
Several commissioners said they’d recently read that Great Falls had the highest crime rate in the state, but they couldn’t recall where they’d seen that information.
According to the Montana Board of Crime Control, which publicly published crime data on the state website, Cascade County does not rank the highest amongst the major counties in either violent crimes or property crimes.
For number of offenses per population, Cascade County was second in 2020, third in 2019, fifth in 2018, sixth in 2017, fifth in 2016
Newton told commissioners that the public needs to be aware, when GFPD puts more officers on the street, there will be an increase in reported crime data.
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“The more officers on the street, the more enforcement on the street, those numbers are going to increase,” Newton said.
The perception could be that Great Falls’ crime is terrible, but it wouldn’t necessarily be true, Newton said.
Mayor Bob Kelly said, “we’ve been woefully behind. I’m 100 percent behind asking the community where they want to be and are they willing to sacrifice the dollars in some very necessary aspects of community life. It’s time. Enough discussion, let’s get this done.”
In November, commissioners told staff to release an RFP with a cost range of $50,000 to $150,000 for a third-party consultant to run a public education campaign on the proposed levy.
Doyon told commissioners during their Jan. 17 meeting that the city received one proposal.
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He said he will schedule a work session for the consultant to make a presentation for commissioners to decide.
Doyon said they’re considering a consultant since the city doesn’t have public safety associations to advocate for increasing city taxes.
Both police and fire have foundations.
Doyon said the last time the city attempted a public safety levy more than a decade ago, the collective bargaining groups made pitches on behalf of the city, and while there wasn’t anything wrong with it since they’re the employees impacted, it didn’t lead to the level of cooperation and unity the commission is looking for.
Doyon said if commissioners hire the consultant, they’ll use CARES Act, unrestricted federal COVID relief funds.
“The public has very high expectations of what we can do as a city and they translate that immediately into their taxes but unfortunately they don’t have the time to figure out how it all works,” Doyon said.
“This isn’t new,” Doyon said. “We’ve had this conversation through the budget process every year that I’ve been here.”
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