Kalispell City Council work session focuses on educational campaign for levy request

Sep. 27—Kalispell City Council on Monday began debating launching a campaign to educate residents on the municipality's public safety needs ahead of a potential levy request.

"I think the value of having that unified public education component as we go forward is very important for this process," said City Manager Doug Russell during the Sept. 25 work session.

The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Safety Management released independent audits of the Kalispell Police and Fire departments over the summer months, finding that both agencies are understaffed and underfunded.

As population and migration increases, so have service demands. In Kalispell, 911 calls have consistently increased since 2018, the audit found. The population has grown by roughly 19%, the area of the city has increased by about 7% and population density has increased by 15%.

"Add in all the other activity from everybody else who's been coming to Montana and all the outlying communities that conduct business in all these bigger cities, it's a lot harder to cover the nut on some of these things," said Mayor Mark Johnson. "But it also comes down to when [city emergency services] respond to a call [they] don't care where that person is from."

Recommendations from the Fire Department audit included creating additional firefighter positions and upgrading the part-time position of the emergency medical services coordinator to full time, allowing the city to fully staff two ambulances and two fire suppression units at all times.

The review of the Police Department recommended expanding the roster to include five new officers, modernizing equipment and processes while increasing accountability and also proposing a long-term improvement plan for the agency.

Discussion among city councilors of putting a public safety levy before voters emerged on the heels of the twin audits. Voters could cast ballots on the question as soon as the spring or summer of next year.

To inform the community about the possibility of a levy, Russell has asked Council to consider hiring a vendor to help with the effort. Money was included in the most recent budget to cover the cost, he said.

A memo outlining the proposal put the price tag of such a campaign at $100,000.

"You're really taking a lot of the information from those [audits] and being able to draft it into something that really provides that educational component out to the community so that there's an understanding of what we're looking for, and you know, what would occur should the levy pass and conversely if it fails," Russell said.

City Councilor Jessica Dahlman questioned the legality of the informational effort, as state law prohibits City Hall from using public resources to campaign for a ballot initiative. A draft request for proposals filed in the meeting's agenda packet had touched on the issue, arguing that city officials were still charged with ensuring the public was educated on the municipality's needs, potential solutions and the possible consequences of those solutions.

Russell echoed that sentiment on Monday.

"While state law is clear in the respect of you can't use municipal or government resources for the advocation of a mill levy, it's also pretty clear that we have the responsibility to educate the public," he said.

Johnson agreed, saying he preferred that City Hall explain the public safety needs over the local media.

"I would steer much more towards putting out, here's the information, pros, cons, et cetera in something we do in the paper versus an editorial board article that swings and misses," he said, referring to newspaper editorials.

If Council elected to hire a firm to lead the campaign, Russell estimated that it would be done in the next couple of weeks.

Council is expected to discuss different options for the possible levy at an Oct. 9 meeting.

Reporter Kate Heston can be reached at kheston@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4459.