City discussing public safety infrastructure bond

City Commissioners resumed their discussion of potentially sending a $21.175 million public safety infrastructure bond to the November ballot during their April 18 work session.

They have until August to meet the deadlines to get that bond on the ballot, in addition to the public safety operational levy they voted in March to send to the ballot.

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According to city documents, the current proposal for the infrastructure bonds is:

public safety infrastructure bond ask 2023

City Manager Greg Doyon said that they’ve been having this discussion and have recognized there were additional needs for infrastructure above the needs being asked for in the operational levy.

Doyon said the city has used voted general obligation bonds in the past, including in 1969 for about $1.9 million for four stations.

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The city also used some general obligation bonds for library facility improvements in 1988 and two mills for library operations in 2000.

The community also approved a bond for the soccer park in 2003 and a neighborhood pools bond in 2006 for about $2.2 million.

The city asked the voters for a public safety levy in 2008 that failed.

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Doyon said the city has the capacity for about $159 million in debt capacity, but that no responsible city manager would advise putting that much into debt service.

The city also has the ability to use about $3.1 million in non voted general obligation debt.

If the commission sends the infrastructure bond to the ballot, it’s separate from the operational levy.

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The operational levy commissioners already voted to send to the ballot would, if passed, authorize the city 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,” according to the ballot language commissioners approved in March.

The infrastructure bond would be in addition to the operational levy.

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As currently constructed, the infrastructure bond would have the following impact to taxpayers, and the combined impact of the bond and levy:

public safety infrastructure tax impact 2023

Great Falls Fire Rescue Chief Jeremy Jones said they’ve worked with an architect to get estimates for the cost of a new fire station, which is $475 per square foot, or about $6.5 million for a 10,000-square foot station, including furnishings and equipment.

But the estimate doesn’t include the land acquisition costs.

Jones said they’ve been working on finding a location for a fifth fire station.

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“We don’t know at this point, but we have multiple angles going,” Jones told commissioners during their April 18 work session.

Jones said that another sewer line collapsed in a fire station recently.

“We’re delaying the inevitable,” he said.

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Commissioner Susan Wolff said that the needs “really shows the 50 years we weren’t able to invest at the level that was needed.”

Commissioner Joe McKenney said that the city’s public safety departments need more, but asking for to fully fund the needs is too much.

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He asked staff if they anticipate having enough tax revenue for a sixth fire station in the next five to 10 years.

“We need to be thinking of this,” McKenney said.

Doyon said that historically has not been the case, but that things have been changing and Great Falls has become more attractive to businesses and incoming residents.

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“I’ve never seen a fully funded budget, I’ve never seen a full funded capital improvement plan, even in my career,” he said.

The problem in Great Falls, he said, has been waiting too long and then having to make big asks of the community or losing community assets, such as the Natatorium.

Melissa Kinzler, city finance director, said that it would surprise her if the city had enough tax revenue to build a new fire station in the future or have enough to support all of the public safety needs.

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“At this point, we’re still just struggling to support the people we have,” she said.

Commissioner Eric Hinebauch said it “shows me what 54 years of deferred maintenance looks like.”

Jones, GFFR fire chief, said their recent experience with plans to purchase an aerial apparatus make him nervous since the cost of that vehicle increase by $300,00o in one year.

Great Falls Police Chief Jeff Newton said that they looked at some buildings for a potential new station, including the former Tribune building, but the renovation costs would have been too high.

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Instead, Newton said they’re looking at renovating the existing space and adding an evidence storage/processing space using ARPA funds.

He said there’s space in the police station that used to be jail cells that could be renovated into usable office space, and when the new evidence space is completed, it will free up the space in the current evidence area to be used for other needs.

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Newton said they’re also looking at expanding the training room at the GFPD since it’s cheaper to get trainers to come to Great Falls, but some will decline an invitation for lack of training space.

Mayor Bob Kelly said that the city was able to use downtown tax increment financing funds to bond for the Civic Center repairs and asked staff to look into whether those same funds could be used for improvements at the police and fire stations downtown. Using the TIF funds for that project, Kelly said, limited the impact to the average taxpayer since the city didn’t have to ask the voters for a bond.

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Hinebauch said he was a bit uncomfortable with that idea since “in my mind, that’s a tool for business attraction.”

Kelly said he was concerned about putting both the operational levy and infrastructure bond on the same ballot in November since voters might not understand the difference.

Hinebauch said he agreed it was a challenge, but that the commission had dedicated a lot of money to voter education.

“I know it’s going to be hard, but that’s on us to make sure the voter knows,” he said.