City considering adding SROs to public safety levy
City Commissioners are getting closer to finalizing their public safety ask to the voters, but during their Feb. 7 work session, considered adding two school resource officers.
Currently, the proposal is a mill levy that would allow the city to mill up to 101.52 mills, which would generate an estimated $10.48 million using current tax valuations.
Using current numbers, that equates to annual tax increases of $137.05 on a $100,000 house or $274.09 on a $200,000 house, according to the city.
Levying a number of mills versus a set dollar amount gives the city more flexibility in the event that property values and the city’s tax base increase.
Based on the current proposed ballot language, the city can mill up to the max amount, but does not have to seek the full amount. The number of mills the city chooses to levy, up to the max, would be determined during the annual budget process.
If commissioners decide to add the two SROs, under the current cost-sharing agreement with Great Falls Public Schools, that would add an estimated $230,000, or another two mills.
City Manager Greg Doyon said he’s trying to get commissioners to nail down their ask for the mill levy for public safety operations before determining whether to also send the estimated $21 million facility bond to the ballot.
The school district has the option to seek a safety levy of its own that could cover the cost of additional SROs, but Superintendent Tom Moore said he wouldn’t recommend that the school board seek such a levy without detailed conversations with the city manager and the Great Falls Police Department to determine if they would have the capacity to staff those positions.
Moore said in his 15 years at GFPS, the district had not sought a safety levy.
City Manager Greg Doyon told commissioners during the work session that staff had been working with the city’s outside bond counsel on the draft ballot language.
Doyon said he sent the draft to commissioners seeking feedback and only heard from Commissioner Joe McKenney who suggested some edits, which the bond counsel has since approved.
The proposed public safety levy has not yet been placed on a city commission agenda for a regular meeting and commissioners must hold a public hearing to take action on sending a levy to the ballot.
Commissioner Rick Tryon asked staff about the funding structure of the potential additional SRO positions and whether they’d be added to the levy ask or absorbed within the current number.
Under the current agreement between the city and GFPS for four SROs, the school district funds 75 percent and the city funds 25 percent.
GFPD Chief Jeff Newton said that how that funding would be structured is up to commissioners in terms of whether they add it to the levy number and whether they renegotiate the existing agreement with the district to change the current cost sharing.
He said if commissioners ask him to absorb additional SRO positions into the current ask, he’d have to adjust the staffing increases he’d already proposed.
Melissa Kinzler, city finance director, reminded commissioners that the Legislature is in session so that could change rules regarding taxation, but that mills are based on taxable valuation, numbers the city doesn’t receive from the Montana Department of Revenue until August.
The ballot language, which is regulated by state law, will include estimated tax impacts but those will be based on the 2021 valuations, which the state updates every two years, Kinzler said, since the ballot language has to be finalized before the city gets the new valuations.
Kinzler also reminded commissioners that if voters approve the levy on the November ballot, the city won’t levy those mills until the next budget year, which will begin July 1, 2024.
Commissioners have spent the last year discussing the possibility of a public safety levy, after about a year of crime task force meetings.
Doyon said that the city’s public safety budget exceeds the revenue generated by tax revenue and that there are longstanding deficits in public safety that need to be remedied.
“There’s a pretty clear need,” Doyon said.