County budget development continues, looking at public safety, library funding

Updated 1:30 p.m. Aug. 4

County Commissioners continued their budget discussion during an Aug. 1 meeting but are awaiting their taxable values from the state before determining if tax increases are needed this year.

Commissioners have scheduled a special meeting for 9:30 a.m. Aug. 30 to open the budget hearing and another for 10:30 a.m. Sept. 7 to close the public budget hearing.

One area they’re looking at is the new public safety levy as an increase in taxable values might result in additional revenue since voters approved 14 mills rather than a set dollar figure.

Based on last year’s figures, county officials estimated the public safety levy would generate $1.1 million for half a budget year. If there’s an increase in taxable values, it might generate up to $1.4 million, Commissioner Joe Briggs told Commissioners Jim Larson and Rae Grulkowski.

Commissioners reviewed Sheriff Jesse Slaughter’s budget proposal, which includes some new positions.

CCSO rolling out community deputy program

Briggs said he’s asked Slaughter to take another look at the budget proposal.

Briggs said Slaughter met with commissioners previously on the budget. He said he met with Slaughter again on July 27 and the next meeting has not yet been scheduled.

Slaughter is planning to use the levy funds for deputy salary increases, including a new community resource deputy.

Briggs said Slaughter is proposing a new civilian coroner position, which would reduce the need for deputies to act as coroners and remove the stipend paid to them for that work.

Slaughter has been looking at creating a civilian coroner for several years.

He told The Electric this week that the county combined the sheriff’s office and coroner in 1970.

Slaughter said there are conflicts between the duties and that he doesn’t believe it’s appropriate for coroner duties to be handled by law enforcement officers.

County exploring options for splitting coroner from CCSO [2020]

Slaughter said coroner’s role is to investigate the cause and manner of death, not determine who is responsible, which is the domain of the sheriff’s office.

About a third of the calls for CCSO are coroner calls, many of which are not criminal situations, and can take three to five hours, meaning a deputy isn’t available to respond to other calls, Slaughter said.

Coroners respond to any suspicious or unattended deaths, which include those who have been hospitalized for under 24 hours.

Creating a civilian coroner position will free up deputies to respond to more emergent calls, but he said he’s planning to keep six to seven deputies as coroners to cover any times the civilian coroner isn’t available or there’s a spike in calls.

Deputies who are trained and certified as coroners are paid a $300 monthly stipend for the extra duties.

Slaughter said the additional coroner duties is one of the reasons deputies leave CCSO for the Great Falls Police Department or other law enforcement agencies where they don’t have to also serve as a coroner.

He said the additional duty is hard on deputies and a civilian coroner, with a good salary, is still cheaper than a deputy.

Slaughter said his long-term plan is to create a civilian coroner division within CCSO as long as it’s a consolidate office.

In 2020, he asked commissioners to split the offices, but no action was taken.

County public safety levy includes pre-trial funding [2022]

Briggs said that if the county raises more revenue with the public safety levy than anticipated, Slaughter and County Attorney Josh Racki the funds need to be used for salaries and the school safety and pre-trial services programs identified when county officials proposed the levy.

Briggs said that case law establishes that funds can’t be appropriated by ballot initiatives and that legally commissioners could use additional funds for other public safety needs.

It’s a “question, in my opinion, or whether we honor what the voters were told it would be used for,” Briggs said.

Grulkoswki said she believed the ballot language said the county could levy “up to” 14 mills so they didn’t necessarily have to levy the full amount.

County approves contract for design of CCSO evidence, storage facility

Briggs and Larson said the ballot language stated that the levy is 14 mills, which is what was printed on the ballot.

“The question is how those mills are used,” Briggs said, and that legally, commissioners could use the funds for other public safety needs.

He said he suggested that now is a good time to add deputies to cut overtime costs, but that Slaughter didn’t want to increase staffing currently.

Slaughter told The Electric that hiring additional staff wasn’t what they told the public they intended to do during the levy proposal process.

He said it also locks up money that could be used for deputy pay increases in the future, especially if the levy amount dips.

He said he’s rarely fully staffed and savings from vacancy savings wouldn’t go back into the levy fund but could be used for other purposes.

Slaughter said he wants to keep the funds for pay increases in the coming years to keep up with increases at GFPD and other law enforcement agencies.

He said that the pay increases were meant to increase retention and that will perhaps lead to them being fully staffed and they might not need more deputies yet.

Slaughter said that once they catch up and are in a position to keep up with inflation and other departments, they’d have a discussion about funding other public safety needs, but that it’s too soon since they haven’t even started levying those mills.

Briggs said it’s a discussion they need to have about the longterm purpose of the public safety levy, which voters approved in perpetuity, meaning it’s a permanent levy unless voters change it in another election.

Slaughter said his proposed budget includes 46 sworn deputy positions.

County begins budget process

Once deputy salaries catch up, which was one of the goals of the levy, Briggs said they need to discuss what they’ll do with levy dollars going forward.

He said there’s no protection if property values decrease and the levy funding drops, so he recommended building a reserve in the fund, a move he said Slaughter and Racki support.

Slaughter and deputies said before the levy that they were paid less than the Great Falls Police Department officers and sheriff’s offices in other counties.

County delays salary decision on elected officials, sheriff

Briggs said it’s not a good comparison between CCSO and GFPD because the duty structure and call volume are different.

“It’s a different beast,” he said, but recognized that many deputies leave to make more at GFPD.

Deputy salaries are a percentage of the sheriff’s salary in a formula set by state law, so to increase deputy pay, the sheriff will receive a raise.

Briggs said raising deputy salaries is “money well spent,” but levy funds in the future will require “some philosophical decision points.”

Another looming complex discussion is library funding, Briggs said.

Library working on levy implementation plan

The county has an agreement with the Great Falls Public Library for $177,000 in annual funding.

That agreement has expired and a new agreement has not yet been reached.

Susie McIntyre, GFPL director, said she has drafted a new agreement but not yet received county approval.

The county also funds the Belt library $51,000 annually under an agreement with the town, which employs the librarian.

The county employees the librarian at the Wedsworth Memorial Library in Cascade and provides $19,000 annually for operations, Briggs said.

Library votes to pursue city, rural mill levies [2022]

The city’s library levy passed in June and the board has expressed a plan to seek a rural mill levy that would fund all three public libraries in Cascade County.

Briggs said he wasn’t sure how a rural library levy works and it wouldn’t make sense to run a countywide levy since that would tax city residents twice.

He said his other issue was that GFPL claims people outside the city limits use the library, but that the Belt and Cascade libraries have membership.

Larson asked if the county could fund library cards to GFPL for county residents to pay on a usage basis. Briggs said that might make sense but at the Bookmobile also serves the county.

“The discussion is coming,” Briggs said. “It’s gonna be a complex discussion.”

They’re also considering a request to build a gymnasium and the juvenile detention center.

Briggs said that when they constructure the new classrooms a few years ago, they ran into soil issues, making the project more expensive than anticipated. Briggs said they could run into similar issues with the gymnasium.

He said he could see authorizing the engineering work to have a better idea of the cost, which staff has estimated around $2 million, but said he didn’t see how they could afford to build the gym this budget year.

Commissioners also discussed the county’s mental health mill levy. Briggs said he budgeted about $1 per household for that levy.

He said they had previously used those funds under a contract with the Center for Mental Health, which is now Many Rivers Whole Health, for jail diversion services, a quick response team and crisis response training.

“That has not worked in opinion of the sheriff’s department,” Briggs said.

He said the county could eliminate that mill or use the funds for other things in the future, but currently, there’s “no place where we’re spending the money.”

Briggs said the funds could potentially be used toward the county’s new pretrial program once it is developed.

The county also levies for alcohol and additional treatment mills and allocates those funds to Many Rivers and the Alliance for Youth, Briggs said.

The county is waiting to receive its certified taxable values from the Montana Department of Revenue.

Briggs said they expect those figures next week and will then determine whether tax increases are needed.

He said then they’ll set public meetings on the proposed budget, in late August or September.