Park County search and rescue levy put on hold

Johnathan Hettinger —
Thursday, March 14, 2019

In this file photo from July 7, 2017, Park County search and rescue volunteer Lloyd Krueger keeps his eye on boats launching from Mayor’s Landing as Corporal Gregg Todd, of the Park County Sheriff’s Office, navigates the Yellowstone River. (Enterprise file photo)

Park County will not go forward with a mill levy increase for search and rescue activities, after the commission decided to take no action on approving a ballot question on Thursday morning.

Ballot language for June 11’s mail-in election must be finalized by Monday to get on the ballot.

Already, the county commission has approved asking for a mill levy increase for ambulance services, and commissioners expressed concern that having both levy requests could lead to the failure of one or the other, especially the more expensive ambulance levy.

“It’s kind of almost a marketing decision,” said Commissioner Bill Berg.

Commission Chairman Steve Caldwell said the stakes are much higher for the ambulance levy, as it asks for $400,000 a year versus about $45,000 a year from the search and rescue levy.

“If the levy were to fail for the ambulance, we would need to have a discussion about a reduction in service area and that would affect the county in a big way,” Caldwell said.

Caldwell and Berg decided to take no action on the question. Commissioner Clint Tinsley was not at Thursday’s meeting.

Caldwell said he thinks the county still needs a levy for search and rescue but it could wait one year until the June 2020 primary elections. 

June’s special mail-in election will likely cost $15,000 to $20,000, said Park County Clerk and Recorder Maritza Reddington. 

Finance Director Erica Strickland agreed the search and rescue levy could wait for a year.

“The numbers are needed, but not to the level of the ambulance,” Strickland said. “If it’s a strategic decision to wait, we can support that.”


Without $1.5 million, one year later

Last year, Park County voters rejected a $1.5 million emergency services mill levy that would have given money to many emergency 

services, including the Sheriff’s Office, dispatch, ambulance services, Rural Fire District No. 1, other small rural fire districts and search and rescue. That vote on the measure was 2,538 “against” to 2,162 “for.”

One year later, the city of Livingston and Park County are strategically working to increase funding for each of the emergency services, which public officials maintain are underfunded and stressed by the large number of tourists to Park County, who do not pay taxes but require emergency services, like search and rescue.

In response, city and county officials have pushed for the state Legislature to pass a Local Gateway Option Tax that would allow residents of Park County to assess a luxury item sales tax to help shift the tax burden to tourists. But the bill, sponsored by Rep. Laurie Bishop, D-Livingston, appears to be a long shot.

Instead, officials have shifted to asking for mill levy increases for each of the individual emergency services. In November, voters approved a levy for Park County Rural Fire District No. 1 to help fund equipment upgrades. Voters will consider an ambulance services mill levy that would help fund equipment upgrades, including the purchase of new ambulances and other equipment to help keep the city-run service countywide.

Other levy ballot questions are likely to come. In November, the city will likely ask for a mill levy increase to fund a city police officer to join the Missouri River Drug Task Force. Next June, the county will ask for an increase for search and rescue.

“The question is shock value or a slow drip — which way do you want to go?” City Manager Michael Kardoes told the county commission last week.


‘Parade of mill levies’

Park County Emergency Services Director Greg Coleman said the $1.5 million levy was designed so the county wouldn’t have to have a “parade of mill levies.”

Each of the emergency services departments in Park County would’ve received money under the mill levy increase, but one year later, the departments are operating without those funds.

Coleman said each of the emergency services in the county relies on each other, and one department getting funding helps that department but hurts service overall.

“When we go piece by piece, Rural Fire is going to have a new fire truck, so they’ll be good, but maybe another department responding as mutual aid may not have as nice of equipment,” Coleman said.

For example, last week, Kardoes said that the city had only one of its four ambulances working during the snowstorm, and 60 percent of those calls were to the county.

“We will always respond with the tools we have and do the best job we can with them. When we ask for more money to upgrade our equipment, when we do respond, we can do a better job,” Coleman said. “It’s a weakest link in the chain kind of thing.”

In recent years, search and rescue has been about $45,000 under budget, Strickland said. That number varies every year, but that’s a fairly consistent average.

“The hardest thing with SAR is we know there’s no way to budget for it,” said Sheriff Brad Bichler. “At the same time, it could be the most important mission my office runs on. It’s very difficult at the time to put a dollar amount on what that’s worth.”

Up to 90 percent of search and rescue missions are for out-of-county residents, Berg said. This past summer, the search for drowning victims in the Yellowstone River was all out-of-county residents, who don’t fund the service.

Additionally, the Sheriff’s Office, which had been set to receive $400,000 annually, is having to deal with older vehicles and reduction in office staff, after the levy failed last year.

Livingston Police Chief Dale Johnson said that the dispatching office, which would’ve received $200,000 annually, has continued to operate short-staffed with often only one person answering 911 calls. He said the city, which runs the service for the city and county, has not been able to upgrade the outdated equipment either.

Other fire departments in Wilsall, Clyde Park, Cooke City-Silver Gate, Gardiner and Paradise Valley would’ve each received $14,000 annually. Coleman said those funds weren’t necessarily earmarked but would help with operational expenses.

“Each department has different needs,” Coleman said.

For example, Gardiner needed an ambulance. Paradise Valley, where Coleman is a volunteer, needs funds to help replace its turnouts — or firefighting uniforms — and self-contained breathing apparatuses.