Emergency services mill levy fails

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

MIKE KARDOES

SCOTT HAMILTON

Enterprise photo by Johnathan Hettinger

Sergeant Andrew Emanuel of the Livingston Police Department delivers a box of cast ballots to Patti Smith, who works in the Park County Clerk and Recorder’s office, on Tuesday night. Of the 5,167 ballots cast in Park County, only 1,864 came from polling places.

Park County voters rejected the emergency services mill levy at the polls Tuesday, voting the measure down 2,538 to 2,162.

The 54 percent “against” to 46 percent “for” margin means the city and county must go back to the drawing board when it comes to emergency services, including ambulance, fire and police.

The $1.5-million levy, which had a 10-year sunset clause, was a joint effort between Park County and the city of Livingston, which share emergency services. Among the reasons cited for the levy was the need for new vehicles and equipment, dispatch center maintenance and upgrades, and local fire districts’ needs.

The levy would’ve raised taxes on a home valued at $100,000 by $45.94 per year, by $91.88 on a $200,000 home and by $137.82 on a $300,000 home.

“Clearly the voters have told us they are unwilling to fund existing levels of emergency services, and our next job is to decide whether to make those cuts,” said Steve Caldwell, chairman of the Park County Commission.

The commission is in its budgeting process, with its first workshop happening three weeks ago, and the process will wrap up around the end of June, though final mill levy values aren’t available until July or August.

“We’ll probably manage it through the budget process,” Caldwell said. “It’s really our best tool for deciding where the funds should be allocated.”

Livingston City Manager Mike Kardoes thanked voters who supported the measure but said the city will have to address funding challenges.

“That’s democracy,” Kardoes said. “We’ll figure out what comes next. We have lots of options for how to keep things within next year’s budget, but it will most likely result in some kind of service reduction.”

Kardoes said the city will still have a year to decide how to address funding for dispatch and ambulance services.

“We weren’t expecting the mill levy to kick in for a year,” he said.

Sheriff’s take

Sheriff Scott Hamilton said he wasn’t surprised with the result of the levy, based on his conversations with Park County residents.

“They think they’re paying enough taxes,” he said. “I get it, I pay property taxes myself. What I heard from a lot of people was they just couldn’t afford to pay more, and they did not think their tax money was being spent wisely. They felt there was enough money to fund emergency services already.”

The Sheriff’s Office, which would’ve received 27 percent of the revenue generated, has already seen some significant cuts, Hamilton said.

Hamilton said his next step is to meet with the county commissioners to see what level of funding can continue.

He said he hasn’t filled a second COPS grant that would allow him to hire another officer because he hasn’t secured funding, and he doesn’t plan to replace the searchand-rescue administrator after she left last month.

The office has already been dealing with a reduced staff for civil work, Hamilton said.

About a month ago, Hamilton and his command staff reviewed the budget line-by-line.

“We’ve trimmed everything as tightly as we can,” he said. “I’m not sure where else we can cut if we need to other than personnel.”

Hamilton encouraged members of the public to let the commission know what should be funded in the upcoming budgeting process.

“It’s important for people to pay attention to what their government is doing. It’s important to attend meetings to see what actions are taken and what aren’t taken,” he said. “People have got to start providing feedback to the commission on what they want.”

Fire district issues

Dann Babcox, chief of Park County Rural Fire District No. 1, said the district is facing more calls with older, less reliable equipment and stagnant revenue, and it’s unclear how that will change without the increased mill levy.

“I couldn’t tell you how we’re going to remedy this situation because obviously the problem doesn’t go away,” Babcox said. “The idea of live within your means isn’t realistic because the cost is going up and the demand for services is going up. When you add those two together, the income has to change, too.”

Babcox said equipment that needs to be replaced isn’t going to be.

“The maintenance cost is going to go up and dependability is going to go down,” he said.

Babcox said he wasn’t surprised the measure failed.

“People are feeling overtaxed, and they feel the money isn’t being used responsibly,” Babcox said.

He said he saw many misconceptions on social media about funding for the fire district.

“There was some stuff coming out positive for it, but there was more negative for it than positive,” he said. “It’s unfortunate because I think a lot of misconceptions were out there. For example, the county commissioners have nothing to do with budgets of the fire departments.”

Babcox said the department has faced increased costs in the past 12 years, when it has not seen an increase in revenue. These costs include inflation on tires, oil and everything else.

He said the board will have to decide what to do next.

“We’re going to have to make some really hard decisions, though I don’t know what those are yet,” Babcox said. “Obviously, we’re gonna keep going and do the best we can, but we’re gonna have to cut some things out.”