City Commission votes to send public safety levy to November ballot

City Commissioners voted unanimously during their March 7 meeting to send the public safety levy to the November ballot.

They also voted 3-2 to spend up to $150,000 with The Wendt agency for a public education campaign for the levy.

Commissioners adopted a resolution that calls for the election and approves ballot language.

City Commission scheduled to vote on sending public safety levy to November ballot

The ballot language reads:

“Shall the City Commission of the City of Great Falls, Montana be authorized to levy mills for the purpose of paying costs of public safety services, including operations, maintenance and certain capital costs of the police department, fire department, city attorney and municipal court services and related public safety expenses? If this mill levy proposition is passed, the City will be authorized to levy permanently up to 103.75 mills per year, to raise approximately $10,717,305. Based on the current taxable value of the City, the property taxes on a home with an assessed market value for tax purposes of $100,000 would increase by $140.06 per year and property taxes on a home with an assessed market value for tax purposes of $200,000 would increase by $280.11 per year.”

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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.

Commissioner Rick Tryon said levy was the public safety agencies asking for what they need.

“We’re 50 years behind Great Falls,” he said.

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“I know that this public safety levy, putting this on the ballot, is the most important thing that I have done, that I will vote for in my entire tenure as a city commissioner,” Tryon said. He’s in the last year of his first term.

“We’re not raising your taxes, we’re putting this on the ballot for you to decide what kind of public safety you want in your community,” Tryon said. “And I know how I will vote in November.”

Commissioner Joe McKenney said that the community has paid the price for underfunding public safety for decades.

The city attempted a public safety levy in 2009 that failed.

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In 1969, voters approved a $1.96 bond to build the existing fire stations and training center.

“Due to lack of action our community has defunded public safety,” McKenney said. “The can’s been kicked down the road for a multitude of reasons.”

The resolution adopted by commissioners on March 7 does not include sending another estimated $12 million facility bond to the ballot.

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The resolution calls for a mail ballot election.

Only one member of the public, Jeni Dodd, commented saying the city should use ARPA funding for public safety instead of the community grants to avoid a levy.

Commissioners have approved ARPA funds for fire station upgrades, refurbishing fire engines and the evidence space that will be added to the existing police station.

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In February, City Manager Greg Doyon said he was trying to get commissioners to nail down their ask for the operational levy before considering the facility bond.

Commissioners and city staff have discussed public safety needs for years and every year during the budget process, fire, police, legal and the municipal court have presented their needs. Some of those have been funded over the years, but not typically to the level the departments requested.

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Over the years, commissioners have also floated the idea of a public safety levy but didn’t pursue it until the last year after the city’s crime task force recommended in late 2021 a levy to fund more of the operational needs presented by staff.

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The current proposal includes funding for two additional school resources officer positions, adding another $230,000 to the total levy proposal.

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Mayor Bob Kelly made the motion to spend up to $150,000 of general fund dollars with Wendt to educate the community on the public safety levy.

For comparison, according to the city’s figures for the public safety levy, the city could hire two 911 dispatchers for $120,000.

“This is really a request that’s been long delayed,” Kelly said of the levy.

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He said there are some community groups that have expressed interest in contributing funds toward the cost of the public education campaign.

Commissioner Eric Hinebauch said that the levy would be one of the biggest investments made by the city and they need to do a good job of educating the voter.

He said it’s educational and not advocacy.

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Tryon said he’s uncomfortable with spending taxpayer funds on an information campaign and would prefer the city use it’s own staff and existing community groups to get information to the public.

The city employs at least three people who’s duties include public information. There are police and fire foundations supporting the local public safety entities.

He said the county was able to pass a public safety levy without spending taxpayer money on education.

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Tryon said he’d wrestled with the decision, but voted no to hiring Wendt “because I believe we could do a fairly decent job without spending $150,000 of taxpayer money. This is just an issue I can’t justify spending $150,000, up to, for this effort at this time.”

McKenney said he had concerns with spending taxpayer funds on education concerns because there had been legal challenges in other communities and because it’s an issue of fairness if they spend money to educate the public for the public safety levy, but not the library levy.

A private group has been established to advocate for the library levy that does not receive public funds. The existing library foundation paid for polling to help develop the levy ask, but is separate from the political action group.

In past meetings, some city officials said the Great Falls Public Schools district used taxpayer funds to advocate for a levy, but that’s not true, according to the district.

The private group, Kids Education Yes, raised funds for some polling but did not pay for a public education campaign.

McKenney voted against hiring Wendt for the education campaign.