Property taxes in Butte will go up slightly in Butte-Silver Bow County and police and firefighters will get new portable radios and radio towers under a $138.5 million budget commissioners approved Wednesday night.
The council voted 11-1 for the plan with no debate, the only no vote coming from Commissioner Bill Andersen.
The bump in taxes will help fund salary increases for county employees, including hefty raises for police that commissioners approved last year as part of a new matrix system. It is designed to bring their salaries in line with officers in Montana’s other sizable cities.
For the first time in several years, rates are not going up for any of the following during the fiscal year that runs through June 2020: water, sewer service, stormwater or the landfill. A two-year rate increase for water ended last year.
Commissioners approved a new flat fee of $72.05 for road maintenance on all property owners last fall and under that plan, it would jump to $87.71 this year to cover more of the actual costs for road work. But commissioners must OK the increase first and a decision on that could be a few weeks away.
The new budget includes $25,000 to help Broadwater County cover costs for prosecuting a man accused in the May 2017 shooting death of one of its sheriff’s deputies, Mason Moore. Butte police were involved in a subsequent car chase and shootout with the suspects.
The $138.5 million figure is for authorized spending from all revenue sources, including local, state and federal tax dollars, payments on utility bills and fees for special improvement districts. It is up from the $135.8 million authorized last year, said Budget Director Danette Gleason.
About $2.4 million of the increase is from revenues and expenditures tied to the new tax-increment financing district south of town.
Spending from county tax-supported funds, including property taxes, is up $1.5 million, or 3.3 percent. The biggest chunk of that, $1.2 million, is for county employee salary and benefit increases. About $440,000 of that is solely for police.
Overall taxable values are up by about 8.4 percent this year, which means more revenue for the county. That will help keep tax increases lower then they might otherwise have been in the spending plan.
But when matched with spending, it was not enough to negate a tax hike altogether.
The increase in property taxes for homeowners will vary depending on the value of a house, but those worth $75,000 will see an increase of $5.06. Those worth $100,000 will have an increase of $6.75. It will be double that, or $13.50, for houses valued at $200,000. Those increases are only for local government.
Roughly half of property taxes go to local government in Butte-Silver Bow and the other half to schools. Some pay elementary levies to districts in Ramsay, Melrose or Divide, but Butte Schools is the largest in the county and everyone pays its high school levies.
Voters who live in the Butte district approved a $35 million bond issue last November to renovate East Middle School and improve security at elementary schools. That could mean much higher tax increases for homeowners in the district starting with new bills this November.
But Dennis Clague, the district’s business director, said taxes for the high school may decrease because a 10-year building reserve levy has expired. How that shakes out precisely will depend on the final budget approved by school trustees, which could come next week.
Individual homeowners could also see increases, or decreases, in their tax bills alone because of new house values set by the state during the recent reappraisal, which is now done every two years.
The new Butte-Silver Bow budget includes the $13 million project to relocate county vehicle and maintenance shops from near the Civic Center to west of town off of Beef Trail Road. But that money is coming from state funds as part of removing mine waste from areas near the Civic Center.
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With local dollars, the biggest new capital expenses are just over $1 million for new 800-megahertz portable radios for police and firefighters and $800,000 for two new repeater towers to magnify radio signals. The current system is antiquated and sometimes the portables don’t work, putting first responders and citizens they’re trying to help at risk.
The $1.8 million expense will be funded through a loan that gets paid back over seven years. Plans are to spend an additional $1 million next year on an enhanced 911 operations and other communications upgrades.
Fire, police and emergency management officials have been looking for upgrades and exploring options for several years.
Butte-Silver Bow Fire Chief Jeff Miller said he appreciates Gleason, Chief Executive Dave Palmer and commissioners for recognizing and addressing the need.
“At this juncture it is certainly the single most critical safety issue facing both fire services and law enforcement,” Miller said. “It will greatly enhance the safety of first responders and the public.”
The budget also includes about $160,000 for cameras, alarms and other security enhancements at the courthouse and other local government buildings, as well as first-year costs for a new phone system that includes security features.
The pay raises for police vary widely depending on rank and years of service, but average about 13 percent. The budget also includes 2-percent pay raises for non-union county employees, with varying increases for other union workers depending on their bargaining-unit contracts, Gleason said.
There is good news for the 300 or so employees on the county’s self-funded health insurance plan. Premiums went up 13.5 percent two years ago and 8 percent last year, far more than increases in county contributions.
Premiums this year are going up 2.5 percent and will be significantly offset by $25 to $30 per month increases in county contributions.
There was some discussion in recent weeks over county positions, but it wasn’t a dragged-out controversy like it was the past two years.
In this budget, one of two laborer positions created last year was nixed. Two contract workers at the Clark Chateau will now be county employees with benefits. There is also money to hire a new electrician but it will only be filled if necessary.
Last year’s budget included seven new county positions that collectively cost $385,000 in salaries and benefits in the first year. Three new positions were added two years ago.
The most drawn-out budget discussion during council meetings this year was on where to find $25,000 to help prosecute Lloyd Barrus. He is charged in connection with Deputy Moore's shooting death, but authorities believe his son, Marshall Barrus, fired the fatal shots.
A high-speed chase through several counties ensued that ended in a shootout in Missoula County and Marshall Barrus was killed. Shots were fired at three Butte officers during the incident and three vehicles were disabled, but Broadwater County is shouldering the cash costs for prosecuting Lloyd Barrus. The state is paying for his defense.
Several counties have contributed cash or in-kind services in the case and Butte-Silver Bow Sheriff Ed Lester asked this county to contribute $25,000. It is coming out of his department's vehicle budget.
“Sending $25,000 to Broadwater County to assist in the Mason Moore case is the right thing to do,” Lester told The Montana Standard Wednesday night. “It certainly won’t bring back Deputy Moore but it will help with the enormous costs it takes to prosecute a case of this magnitude.
“This isn’t just a Broadwater County case. Officers from Butte, Anaconda, Deer Lodge, Granite County, Missoula and the Montana Highway Patrol all could have been killed that night,” he said. “If we can help by ordering one less patrol vehicle and using the money to help prosecute this case, that’s a pretty easy decision.”