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Preview: Public Safety Levy Election

Election Vote Great Falls
Posted at 6:39 PM, Nov 06, 2023

GREAT FALLS — For the past several months, the City of Great Falls has been working to educate the public on the Public Safety Levy. Currently, Great Falls Fire Rescue, Great Falls Police Department, and the municipal court services are lacking in funding. According to some city officials, it's been more than 50 years since Great Falls voters have passed public safety funding and since then, the city has grown by 44 percent, resulting in difficulties for public safety departments.

We caught up with the Great Falls Fire Rescue and Great Falls Police Department to hear their perspective.

Jones said GFFR protected 15 square miles in 1972, compared to the 27 square miles they cover now.

Many people who have raised questions about the levy pertain to the city's population.

"We actually dipped below those numbers that we had in 1972," Jones said. "We've come back to them, and we've seen an increase, but what has happened is our geographical spread, our footprint of our community has grown. We're required to protect more with less."

Jones added that in 1972, GFFR had 103 personnel. Now they have 71.

GFFR currently has an Insurance Service Office rating of 3. The ISO rating is a 1-10 scale, where the lowest number implies a city has better services. Currently, GFFR is looking to keep its calls under four minutes to all areas of the city and it struggles to answer calls effectively. With the needs of the department and other agencies, Great Falls can see itself decline in that rating, which could impose other homeowner insurance increases.

"People are starting to call us and say, 'what's going on? I am seeing my homeowners policies increase.' That is one of the components that is going on in the insurance industry, and that continuation, we have been told, will continue moving forward."

Jones pointed out that the National Fire Protection Association says 17 firefighters should respond to a single family housefire.

"The best we can do is 13," Jones said. If no one is hurt and no one is on vacation, we might be able to hit that 14 mark, but everyday, we're at 13 with four resources."

Great Falls Police Department Chief Jeff Newton said, "We've seen an increase in need in requirement for law enforcement services in the community. What we've done as a police department is become a reactive police department."

Information that the city has put out regarding to the police department is that assaults on Great Falls Police Officers have increased 133 percent since 2018. The city added that Great Falls has four school resource officers for over 11,000 students and staff, in which they patrol 21 Great Falls Public Schools.

"It's important for us to provide that effective level of service to our community members both in crime, traffic, and quality of life issues," Newton said.

Newton has served as Great Falls Police Chief since 2021. He says these challenges existed long before he entered the Police Department.

"My two predecessors have also dealt with the same challenges," Newton said. "It's the requirements, it's the more complex nature of crimes, it's more calls for service, more expectations on what law enforcement can and can't do. It's more requirements placed on us, and what we've had to do because of those requirements is focus our efforts on the operational component. We've had to eliminate some of the community policing components. That started prior to my tenure as a Chief. Our focus primarily is to keep our patrol as well staffed as we can, followed by investigations. That means we've had to eliminate other programs to do that."

Last week, we reached out to those who oppose the levy and were willing to be interviewed. One person responded to give his view on the Levy and why he opposes it.

Tony Rosales stated, "Fundamentally, I agree with what a lot of the commissioners have been talking about. We are seeing growth in our city and we do need to provide an environment where we can have that growth, but I don't think they're necessarily doing the right thing and how they brought on this levy is one of the problems."

Rosales' first issue pertained to the levy strategy, noting that they should've put the safety and library levy on the same ballot instead of different ballots.

Rosales also referred to a research article done by a student at the University of Montana in the 1970s, which he says illustrates the same "problems" in Great Falls from a financial perspective.

"There are many solutions that they proposed that our city forgot," Rosales said. "One of them was separating our two levies between the Fire Department and Police Department, especially in the contexts of insurance costs because of the fire situation."

Rosales also has concerns about whether their issues will be solved if they receive the necessary funding.

"They aren't coming at this with the idea that if we do get this money, get these positions filled, and put money in different spots, we'll be able to accomplish or solve these different problems. They haven't provided any evidence that these problems will be solved, especially related to crime, and that points to the larger question, what is wrong with criminal justice and our law enforcement here in Great Falls."

In response to those who oppose the levy, Chief Newton said, "I would say to the community, what do you want your public safety to look like? And there are consequences for voting for it and there's consequences for not voting for it."

Jones said he was born and raised in this community and at the end of the day, we all work for each other.

"All I can do is educate you, give you the information you need to make the best informed decision you can, and you have to vote with what your gut tells you."