ALL-POINTS BULLETIN: Fund the Police, Fund our Firefighters, Fund Public Safety
by Daniel J. Brooks, Business Advocacy Director Billings Chamber of Commerce
We’re All in this Together
Everyone has a story. I don't mean the story we tell about ourselves and who we are as a person. We all have a story related to public safety in Billings. Whether it's a neighborhood break-in, a stolen vehicle, vandals that broke windows, and tagged property with graffiti. Families face addiction issues and negative stigma, keeping people reticent and much of the problem under the radar. Our businesses deal with transients who alarm and frighten away customers. Sadly, those are the less worrying stories. Many people have an account of violent crime in Billings, up 200% in the last 10 years. Even those shocking numbers don’t do justice to the stories some residents can tell. A family member murdered. Employees assaulted at work. Or domestic abuse within the confines of home.
In a recent survey of our membership, 90% indicated public safety issues had impacted them. Why were we not surprised? We hear from our businesses often about transients, vandals, thieves, and attackers affecting their bottom line.
While some dismiss public safety as a downtown issue, a quick check on crimemapping.com, a website that tracks and maps incident reports, will show there is no area of Billings untouched by crime. I don’t write all this to whip the reader into a frenzy of fear - I worry we’re all a little numb at this point - but simply point out the reality: Billings’ public safety situation impacts everyone.
It’s not Rocket Science…it’s Harder
In the 2017 and 2019 municipal elections, public safety came to the top of aspiring councilmembers’ policy platforms. As a result, our current council has made public safety their top priority. It’s good to acknowledge the problem, but we’re a long way from solving it, which is made all the more difficult due to its complexity.
By the Numbers
During a Substance Abuse Connect (a group tasked with addressing substance abuse and addiction issues in our community) meeting, I was enlightened to the difference between complicated and complex problems. I could not do justice to the speaker’s description, so I found an excellent explanation in the Harvard Business Review1,
“Practically speaking, the main difference between complicated and complex systems is that with the former, one can usually predict outcomes by knowing the starting conditions. In a complex system, the same starting conditions can produce different outcomes, depending on the interactions of the elements in the system.”
Rocket science is complicated but predictable. With enough calculation, a decisive, conclusive solution will present itself. Unfortunately, our public safety situation is complex. Numerous variables, people, and government policies intertwined to the point that even the most rigorous academic study would merely suggest how each piece affects another with some level of confidence.
In Billings, our puzzle pieces consist of city police, the county jail, state prisoners and policies, addiction issues throughout the community, violent crime fueled by methamphetamine coming from Mexico, to name only a few. And while the community is working on all pieces simultaneously, we have an opportunity to address a major factor at the ballot box this November: passing a public safety mill levy to provide needed resources to our local law enforcement and firefighters.
The levy also contains funding for substance abuse, helping to address addiction issues. The county and state continue to work together to move state inmates from our local facility regarding the jail situation. Billings legislators made some progress on jail overcrowding in the 2021 Session, and there is more work to do in 2023. And just recently, the Billings Chamber discussed the need to stanch methamphetamine traffic from Mexico with Montana's federal delegation members. As progress is made with all the pieces of public safety, we have the chance to put a dent in violent crime this November by voting YES on the levy and putting more cops on the streets of Billings.
Doing More with Less
Tighten the belt. Find efficiencies. Adapt. Sentiments we often hear when the issue of tax increases arises. Frankly, over the last decade, our public safety personnel have done just that. Our city has continually asked our public safety personnel to do more with less. They've taken on new emergency services, rescues on the Rims, river operations, and more. Our police now deal with the administration and logistics of body camera evidence. And a growing city inevitably brings more crime.
But it’s not unfair to ask our government to be efficient with taxpayer dollars. Throwing money at a problem is an unwise policy. Fortunately, we can be assured that these dollars will be spent wisely. Recent reports from an outside, third-party evaluation of our police and fire departments identified 104 and 34 recommendations, respectively, to increase efficiencies in the city's services. Because of the information gleaned from these expert analyses, police and fire departments require significantly less than was previously assumed. Meaning, the addition of safety benefits will come at a lower cost to you, the taxpayer.
Public Safety Double Play
2020 felt like an eternity, yet it seems like only yesterday we passed a public safety mill levy. “Didn’t we just pass one?” people ask me when I inform them we’ll be voting on another this November. Yes, we did. Thanks to the overwhelming support of Billings voters, cops and firefighters got to keep their jobs. Otherwise, they were facing cuts to personnel. The 2020 safety levy kept us from going backward, losing more ground to violent crime in our city. Now it's time to give our public safety personnel the additional resources they need to get Billings’ public safety back on the right track.
No Better Time than Now
If we wait until the stars align with city, county, state, and federal governments coordinated to implement a cohesive set of policies, we’ll never get anything done. Fortunately, if there’s one thing I know about people from Billings, it’s that we’re doers. We’re industrious. We get things done. Recently, a local business owner mentioned that we're not good at telling our story because we’re so busy doing. So let's DO this, Billings. Then we’ll tell our story about overcoming public safety crises through our vote on November 2. Vote YES for public safety.
If you'd like to learn more about Billings' public safety, visit: BillingsChamber.com.
Originally printed in the September 2021 issue of Simply Local Magazine
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Planning for Success: Billings Chamber 2021-'22 Priority Initiatives
For the Chamber, the next 12 months will be focused on securing what is essential for our community's growth and economic success; things like public safety, education, and quality of place through our built environment are at the top of the list.