TALKING TRADEOFFS WITH LIMITED SAFETY FUNDING
After taking a week off—Council doesn’t meet on the 5th Monday of a month—City Council is back at it tonight with a full slate of public safety topics on the work session agenda.
Before we take a look at those discussion items, we want to let you know that our annual Candidate School (Feb 29th from 8:00 – 12:00) is open for anyone remotely interested in running for elected office. Our FREE program is available to anyone wanting to learn more about running for office, first-time candidates, folks who want to run for office…in a few years, and even campaign veterans hoping to pick up an additional nugget of knowledge. The morning-long session will cover talking to voters at the door, how to file campaign finance reports, and feature a panel of local legislators. Register yourself and find a friend to come and learn more!
Yellowstone County Short-Term Jail Request
The City and County have been working toward a collaboration on building a 72-hour pre-arraignment hold facility at the jail. The jail, which has capacity for about 430 inmates often registers nearly 600 inmates. With limited spaces to hold inmates, violent and dangerous offenders get preference, while lower-level offenders are given a notice to appear in court and released back onto the streets. Unfortunately, they often end up back in trouble, having committed a more egregious violation of the law. A short-term holding facility would ensure those lower-level offenders face consequences for their actions and actually see a judge before being let out.
A recent letter from the County to the City noted that the cost of the facility had significantly increased since late 2023—jumping to a $6 million price tag—and asked the City to help cover that increase. The City has already appropriated $500,000 in FY24 to assist with the cost and will likely increase its contribution as long as there is some expediency with the process. Estimates from architects who did the initial feasibility study indicated that a short-term facility would take at least a year to build with additional design and construction time.
Below is an overview detailing the location of the short-term holding area on the western side of the detention facility.
In addition to the short-term hold facility, the jail subcommittee of a local Criminal Justice Continuum Committee (consisting of local government officials and organizations that operate our criminal justice system) are recommending a comprehensive expansion of the jail. After studying the situation, they determined that even after implementing efficiency recommendations the jail would still require additional space and beds. Optimistically, a jail expansion bond vote could be on the November ballot.
Domestic Violence Investigation Unit
In October 2023, Councilwoman Owen brought forward a Council Initiative to create a domestic violence investigative unit within the Billing Police Department (BPD). With a majority of violent offenses in Billings committed as domestic violence, it makes sense to create a specialty unit. This was also a recommendation in the Center for Public Safety Management (CPSM) report that contained numerous efficiency recommendations, most of which were implemented by BPD. We supported Councilwoman Owen’s initiative back in October and covered it in that Council Bulletin.
“BPD statistics from 2018 through 2023 show an average of 1059 [domestic/family violence] incidents a year compared to an average 712 incidents of all other crime…[S]tatistical and empirical evidence show that juveniles who join gangs and/or commit violent acts almost certainly witnessed violence in their homes. As such, robustly addressing [domestic/family violence] at all phases will help break the cyclical violence.”Billings Police Chief St. John
According to a memo from Chief St. John, BPD’s two Domestic Violence Investigators (DVI), along with some assistance from the City Attorney’s Office, are currently working on 60 cases, with 700 total cases year-to-date. Tonight, Chief St. John will present options for City Council to move forward with the initiative. Those include:
1.) Continue on with Status Quo
- No adverse staffing impact
- Maintain current service level Engage other partners
- Large & increasing case load
- Officer frustration & burn out
- Diminished victim services Lack of offender accountability
2.) Shift Resources to Domestic Violence (DV) Investigative Unit
- Establishes DV as dept. priority
- Increased handling of DV cases
- Better victim services
- More offender accountability Engage other partners
- Property/traffic crime relegated
- Personnel reassignments
- Existing task force commitments Could increase overtime
3.) Increase Staffing and Restructure
- Expand DV program
- More DV case follow-up
- Better victim services No compromise/tradeoff choices
- Likely needs prop. tax increase
- Needs broad staffing discussion Council Initiative directs shifting resources, not increasing
The top recommendation from staff is to increase FTEs. Financial estimates of that increase are below, with an ongoing cost of $0.5 million that would likely require additional tax increases to property owners.
6 FTEs @ $87,000 each
Equip. x6 @ $18,000 each
Vehicles x3 @ $29,000 each
One of the provisions of CW Owen’s initiative was to not increase FTEs unless there was a critical skillset missing. Shifting existing resources will entail tradeoffs and compromises. As the memo outlines, drawbacks include a reduction in emphasis on other crimes such as property and traffic, and addressing overtime pay considerations.
Chief St. John’s memo indicates one of the positives of shifting resources is the signaling of importance of domestic/family violence as a BPD priority. We’d also add, that it will have a much more significant impact on reducing future crime. Compromising to potentially allow an uptick in traffic violations and property crime in the short term to seriously address our violent crime situation long term seems like a worthy tradeoff at the moment.
Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design
City Council will also get an update from the City’s CPTED team, discussing how they plan to use the $120,000 budgeted this FY for CPTED improvements to city property. The Chamber has been working with Sgt. West and Nick Miller at the Parks Department to collaborate efforts.
While no formal decisions will be made tonight, City Council will have some interesting discussions on how to most effectively use its limited public safety resources and the tradeoffs of the various directions they could take. We strongly encourage our membership to tune in tonight and stay up-to-date on the ongoing public safety discussions taking place in our community.
CITY ADMINISTRATOR WEEKLY REPORT
City Administrator Chris Kukulski began the routine of sending a weekly report every Friday to City Council and department heads with the intent to, “communicate the highlights of the past week and any critical issues coming up.” The most recent CA Report includes updates on:
- Council Operations Committee recommendations for upcoming local government review process
- Informational meeting on draft subdivision regulation changes
- New housing counts in Billings from 2020 – 2023
- And much more…
GET MORE INVOLVED IN YOUR COMMUNITY
Below are some additional public meetings being held this week, along with information about when and where to attend, and what’s on the agenda (if one is available).
Tuesday, February 6th
4:30 – 5:30 pm @ Miller Building, 1st Floor, 2825 3rd Ave N
7:00 – 8:00 pm @ Billings Hotel and Convention Center
Wednesday, February 7th
7:00 – 8:00 pm @ North Park Community Center
Thursday, February 8th
10:30 – 11:30 pm @ Miller Building, 1st Floor, 2825 3rd Ave N.
THE SQUEAKY WHEEL
(Your email will be publicly available, similar to those you can read by clicking the button above.)
BOARD & COMMISSION OPENINGS
“It takes a little time and commitment, but it’s incredibly rewarding to give back to our community which has given us so much.”Greg McCall, Zoning Commission and Owner, McCall Homes
The Mayor’s Office is accepting letters of interest to fill the vacancies listed on the city website. For more information on each specific board, visit the city website. City Boards and Commissions are appointed by the Mayor, confirmed by City Council, are advisory only, and members serve without compensation. Submit applications to: Mayor’s Office, PO Box 1178, Billings, MT 59103-1178 NO LATER THAN JANUARY 29, 2024.
BOARD OPENING (SEATS)
Yellowstone Soil Conservation (1)
Must live within district—Laurel or Broadview
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
The Billings Police Department launched it’s FIVE-O Forum podcast, aiming to keep listeners updated on public safety topics in Billings. You can like and subscribe to the City of Billings YouTube channel.