Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Increased public safety comes with a cost

| March 3, 2024 12:00 AM

Are Kalispell’s public safety resources meeting expectations?

That’s the question voters should ask themselves when considering the city’s levy request to bulk up its police, fire and ambulance services. 

As detailed in stories published in Friday’s and today’s edition, the permanent levy is expected to generate $4.6 million in its first year — and the cost to property owners is substantial. A home valued at $450,000 would pay an additional $369 annually, or roughly $30 a month.

Over the last month, the Kalispell fire and police chiefs have made compelling cases for why voters should support the levy, leaning on data that may come as a surprise to many residents.

In advocating for the new funding, Kalispell Police Chief Jordan Venezio points to Kalispell’s rapidly increasing population and an associated rise in service calls.

On average, the police department’s response time is a little over nine minutes, compared to the national average of five minutes.

“Call volume and response time are our biggest issues,” the chief said.

Crime is up, too, with an 86% increase in violent crime from 2018 to 2022, according to city data. While that figure is startling, it should be noted that the percentage does not take into account Kalispell’s population rise over that timespan — an important discerning factor. 

But no matter how you spin it, more people equates to more crime.

Venezio said that among other priorities, his department would leverage the additional funding from the levy to ramp up proactive policing efforts through increased patrols. He wants to stop crimes before they happen, as opposed to constantly reacting after the fact.

It’s a similar story for Kalispell’s fire department, which is frequently forced to prioritize ambulance calls when all other units are occupied with other emergencies.

A recent audit by the Center for Public Safety Management found that between 2018 and 2022, Kalispell saw a 32% increase in emergency fire response calls, a 19% increase in ambulance calls and a 23% increase in calls overall. Again, more residents and more homes in the city equates to more EMS and fire calls.

Understandably, Kalispell Fire Chief Dan Pearce is concerned about current staffing levels keeping up with increased demands. To turn the tide, his department would use the additional levy funding to build a third fire station, purchase more equipment and hire 27 additional employees.

WHILE THE statistics clearly show Kalispell’s fire and police departments are maxed out, so are other public resources, and voters must be mindful of other funding priorities in the pipeline. A levy request from Kalispell Public Schools is on the horizon, while Flathead County will soon ask voters to fund construction of a new jail facility with an estimated price tag of $115 and $134 million. The financial burden of those two projects alone will be significant, not to mention other infrastructure projects that need to be addressed.

It’s also reasonable to question if Kalispell City Council could do more to offset the public safety levy amount. While impact fees on new development can’t be used for personnel and apparatus, that revenue could go toward the cost of a new fire station. We remind Kalispell voters that three years ago, the City Council decided to lower impact fees by 50%, despite an independent report that recommended the city increase those fees.

All that aside, the levy request ultimately comes down to each voter’s sense of personal and community safety, and their willingness to pay more to support increased services.

If voters are unsatisfied with the current level of policing and believe the crime rate is too high — they should mark yes in support of the levy so the department has the resources it needs to ramp up patrols and keep the public safe.

If voters believe the city’s ambulance response times are inadequate, or the lack of a westside fire station is concerning — they should mark yes so the Fire Department can add the staff and infrastructure it needs to better serve the community.

Increased public safety comes with a price tag, no matter how you slice it.

More information on the levy request can be found at Kalispell.com. Ballots for the mail-in election are due back to the election department March 19 by 8 p.m.