Helena voters will decide whether to increase property taxes to bolster the Helena Fire Department's budget.
The city commission voted unanimously Monday evening to increase the amount of the proposed levy and send it to voters in a municipal election June 5.
The fire levy would raise $900,000 each year, up from the previously requested $750,000, in order to cover all of the Helena Fire Department’s capital expenditures.
If the levy is approved, the Helena Fire Department will be able to procure six additional firefighters and have $300,000 for capital needs, such as new fire trucks.
In order to meet those requests, the levy asks the city to raise taxes by $18.43 per year for a home valued at $100,000 and $36.85 for a home valued at $200,000.
In a memo sent to the commission for review during their March 7 administrative meeting, the fire department said it could be "completely independent of the current capital budget" if $200,000 to $300,000 of the money raised is dedicated to capital funds. That would help free up city funds for other departments, fire department officials say.
The fire department's current budget is $4.4 million without including any capital expenditures. The levy would allow the fire department to operate without dipping into the general fund, and it would help replace vehicles used in rescue and an aerial ladder truck that has reached the end of its service life.
In a March 7 interview, Helena Fire Chief Mark Emert said the goal was to have “redundancy” for firefighting operations so HFD could avoid missing calls for service.
According to Emert, the levy will “provide more effective firefighting service and provide services for community needs” as the annual call volume increases over time.
Helena Police Department Corporal Matt Lewis asked the commission to think about expanding the levy to include other crisis management workers, such as the police department.
“This should include all services for all crises,” Lewis said. “ ... We’ve really taken to heart, more with less, or as much as possible. We’re concerned that the levy was a good opportunity to take up this issue and fails to take up the largest crisis we are dealing with,” he added, noting that he was referring to rising violent and property crimes in Helena and a police force stretched thin.
The amendment to expand the levy was met with opposition from commissioners Heather O’Laughlin and Andres Haladay, who believed that the levy as written is capable of completing the task of meeting crisis management.
Haladay said the process was not a fast one.
“This wasn’t brought up by the commission a month ago, this was brought up by commissions past," he said.
A report on the deficiencies of funding for the fire department was released in 2008. This year’s fire levy seeks to remedy the issues that were found, including the capital needs of the HFD.
O’Laughlin said the disagreement was just part of the process.
“There’s certainly a need for both staffing capacity and capital needs,” O’Laughlin said. “It’s not unusual to disagree on where the number should be.”