You Get to Decide on Future of City Safety - | News, Weather & Sports in Billings, Montana

You Get to Decide on Future of City Safety

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On June 3, voters must decide whether to say yes or no to a review of the current form of city government in Billings, which has been guided by a charter since 1977.

It's the charter that dictates how much money, or taxes, the city can collect via mill levies -- and that affects the city budget -- which determines how many public safety employees, like police officers, can be hired.

This is only one night in the work life of Sergeant Shane Winden, and his fellow night side officers of the Billings Police Department.

"Our job is to be the only rational person in an otherwise irrational situation," says Sgt. Shane Winden of the Billings Police Department.

On this so-called slow Friday night, someone has been drinking and driving, a weapon is seized, there is serious cause for concern in one neighborhood and as last call for alcohol is made at local establishments, downtown streets fill up with people who have had too much, and that's when things start to happen.

"I think because of our call load and the amount of officers we've got, we tend to go from call to call -- so it makes it really hard to be proactive to get in those neighborhoods and snoop around for the people breaking into the houses and cars," says Sgt. Winden.

According to studies done by city leaders, for the first time in Billings' history, last year's calls for emergency service exceeded 70, 000 -- and that's a record.

"We're significantly low probably about 20 officers thereabouts. Just on the patrol side to keep up with the work going on right now," according to Chief Rich St. John of the Billings Police Department.

Residents have mixed reactions.

"As our space widens, we need more of a police force to monitor that space and the crime rate that occurs with those areas," says Billings Resident Tiffini Iwen.

"I think we have enough. I feel everywhere I go I see policemen and I feel like definitely, there are enough in the town," says another Billings Resident, Amanda Reinke.

"We're trying to be very good stewards of the taxpayers dollars. But we're busy and we continue to get busy and that trend is continuing. Over the last five years, we're seeing about a 1.5 percent increase in population," says Billings Police Chief Rich St. John.

The police department has not grown to accommodate the billings population -- now at about 108-thousand people over a 43-square mile radius.

Billings Mayor Tom Hanel, who was a police officer for many years, says without a change in the charter, city leaders need to revert to another mill levy.

"What they need to know is this -- is that the limits with in the Charter are restricting the City of Billings from being able to meet the ever-growing needs of service," says Mayor Hanel.

Meanwhile, Sgt. Shane Winden and his colleagues continue to serve and protect -- regardless of a change in city law.

"Not every day is the same. Everything's different. You never know what you're going to expect on this shift," according to Sgt. Winden.

It's important to note city leaders consider this ballot measure to be extremely important.

If the city charter review is approved -- in November -- voters must give their nod of approval to the commission members who will examine the charter and make their recommendations to the City Council.