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Broadwater County Commission puts public safety levy on June ballot

Posted at 7:06 PM, Mar 04, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-05 13:00:02-05

Broadwater County leaders have finalized plans to put a public safety levy proposal before voters this year.

On Wednesday morning, the Broadwater County Commission approved the final language for a five-year levy, which will appear on the county ballot in the June 2 primary election.

“It’s been a lot of work to get to this point; there’s a lot more to do,” said Commissioner Darrel Folkvord.

The measure would raise around $704,000 each year for the Broadwater County Sheriff’s Office and detention center. Leaders estimate it would increase property taxes $53.91 a year on a $100,000 home and $107.81 a year on a $200,000 home.

Sheriff Wynn Meehan has argued for years that too much of his office’s budget is based on the revenue received for housing other counties’ inmates in the Broadwater County jail. This year, that revenue was more than $868,000 – about 42% of the total sheriff’s office budget. Jail revenue is partly used to support the patrol division.

However, that funding is expected once Lewis and Clark County finished expanding its own detention center. Broadwater County is currently holding about 20 inmates from Lewis and Clark County, and losing those inmates could mean a loss of more than $600,000 in revenue.

Meehan said this levy would provide enough to fully cover the costs of operating the jail and dispatch center and maintain the existing number of deputies. While it would not increase the number of deputies, he said it would allow them to restart the sheriff’s office’s reserve deputy program – bringing in volunteers who could help handle some commitments and give full-time deputies more flexibility to patrol.

“I know it protects our best interest and it keeps the public safe – and hopefully to a level better than what we’re at right now,” Meehan said.

Over the last month, Meehan took part in several public meetings and opened an online survey to find out what Broadwater County residents wanted from their public safety services. He said the results showed that people wanted to make sure that the jail remained open, and that they were open to the idea of paying more to support public safety. However, he said the survey showed only mixed interest in a levy that would support adding deputies.

Cory Swanson, the Broadwater County attorney, said, as the county’s population continues to grow, the need for the sheriff’s offices services is only going to increase. He said a levy would be the only way to get the money needed to keep operating the jail.

“We have to keep a jail open for our own cases; we have to fund dispatch – people, when they call 911, there has to be someone on the other side of the phone that picks up and sends help,” he said. “They have to have someone that’s talking to the ambulance at 3 in the morning. That’s an essential.”

If Broadwater County closed its jail, leaders said they would still incur costs because they would have to pay to transport and house their inmates in another county.

As part of the resolution calling for the new levy, Broadwater County commissioners gave a commitment that they would continue to use more than 34% of the county’s general mill levy on public safety. Leaders said they had heard from some residents concerned that the county would redirect current sheriff’s office funding if the new levy passes.

While the public safety levy would not pay for additional deputies, Meehan said he is looking at other possible options for increasing patrols. He said the department is currently applying for a U.S. Department of Justice grant that would temporarily pay part of the cost for two new deputies to serve the far southern end of Broadwater County, near Three Forks.

Many voters in Broadwater County will have to consider two measures this spring that could increase their taxes. The Townsend School District is proposing an $18.8 million bond issue to build a new elementary school. That measure will appear on the ballot for the May school election.