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Yellowstone County Commissioners approved a resolution that sets a public hearing to be held on July 25, regarding a request of voters, on November 7, to increase the Safety Mill Levy, to help relieve pressure on the budget for the County Attorney’s office. The proposal would increase property taxes by 8 mills, which would generate about $2.75 million, annually, in perpetuity.

Not only would the levy help meet the needs of the county attorney’s office, where felony cases have doubled in the last six years, it would relieve pressure on other parts of the county general fund and reserve funds, which have been subsidizing the county attorney’s office. The county needs all those funds to address increasing costs in other county departments, associated with the same increase in crime.

County Attorney Scott Twito said that, since 2000, his office has seen filings triple from unprecedented escalating crime, which is being driven by illegal drug use, primarily from methamphetamines.

The increasing case load faced by the county’s judicial system prompted the state legislature to approve two new district court judges for the county, which while important to alleviating the backlog of cases, puts even more pressure on Twito’s office. With the addition of two new judges, “it is going to be frightening,” said Twito. Ideally, each judge should have one attorney assigned to them from Twito’s office; as it is he has two assigned to four judges. How it’s going to work with six judges is a worry, he said.

The data, actually, demonstrated that there is a need for six additional judges in Yellowstone County, rather than just the two approved.

It is time for the voters to weigh in, said Twito, who hopes they will be as supportive as they were in establishing the Safety Mill Levy in 2000. “It’s kind of déjà vu,” he said.

The 8 mills will augment the current 4.14 mill Safety Levy, which generates about $1.4 million annually. Tax payers would first pay the additional tax in FY2018-19. The proposed levy increase will cost a house with a fair market value of $100,000 about $10.80, or about $21.60 on a $200,000 house.

The situation is on an unsustainable course, said Director of Finance Kevan Bryan. The County Attorney’s office has been drawing from its reserve funds, which will be completely depleted by 2023. The County Attorney’s office faces a $8.7 million deficit, according to Bryan.

During budget discussions several weeks ago, Bryan suggested there may be a need to raise the levy. The budget for FY2017-18 will subsidize the county attorney’s office by drawing from the county general fund about $2.4 million, in addition to transferring $450,000 from other county funds.

The mill levy increase will be “no windfall” for the rest of the county budget, said Bryan, who commended Twito on the frugal management of his office. “He has held back as long as he can,” said Bryan.

Because of the same increase in criminal cases, other county offices are facing some of the same pressures. Besides having to do extensive remodel and adding to office space to accommodate the addition of two more judges, the demands for space and staff are being felt by the Clerk of Courts office, and by all departments providing support services, for child abuse and neglect cases, mental health and drug treatment, and increases in case load for Justices of the Peace – not to mention the impacts being felt by the Sheriff’s Department and law enforcement, which includes the addition to the jail.

At the same time the state legislature cut funding for victim/witness fees, which means the county must pick up the cost; and the state has added to the number of people defined as victims, which increases the demand for victims’ services. 

The crime rate is placing “an enormous strain on the budget”, said County Commissioner John Ostlund. “With no additional funding, we need millions of dollars to fund services, staff and space.”

County Commissioners have approved increasing the county attorney’s staff by six this year – two earlier in the year and four more as part of recent budget discussions. The only reason Twito didn’t ask for more staff, said Bryan, is he has no place to put them.

Bringing the issue to a head, beyond the limited space and staffing, is the need to improve conditions to retain existing staff and recruit additional staff.  Turnover in the County Attorney’s office is the most it has been since he joined the office in 1991, commented Deputy County Attorney Dan Schwarz. The workload and crowded conditions are generating burnout and “churn,” within the department.

“When they can’t get people to apply for positions, it’s a multi-edge issue,” said Bryan.