Montana Lawmakers Assess Underfunded, Aging Police Academy

Academy outside Helena is primarily funded by $10 surcharges levied on most criminal fines since 2003

By ALISON NOON, Associated Press

HELENA — Lawmakers are rethinking the financing of Montana’s century-old police academy.

The campus outside Helena is primarily funded by $10 surcharges levied on most criminal fines since 2003. But that source has consistently fallen $300,000 short of the original expectation of $1.1 million annually.

Law-enforcement officials told the Legislative Fiscal Committee on Friday the surcharges are inadequate for the academy to fulfill its requirement to train hundreds of peace officers every year.

Academy Administrator Glen Stinar said the facility is running an annual deficit as high as $500,000 to pay its 16-person staff, fix the aging infrastructure and provide food and housing for students during weeks-long courses.

“You just never know when something’s going to fall off the wall,” he said.

Stinar said he can’t make plans to repair broken heaters, leaky pipes or crumbling staircases because the funding is insufficient and unpredictable, varying every year with the crime rate.

The academy has been relying on federal grants and aid from other state agencies to pay for repairs.

One grant allowed trainers to incorporate a life-size video simulator into active shooter training this year. Students who use the new equipment will be practicing in frigid, outdoor-like conditions this winter because the heater is defective and insulation is poor in the room where it’s being housed.

Training Specialist Mike McCarthy said the cool climate will keep the machines from overheating.

Lawmakers may consider backfilling the police academy shortage with money from the state’s general budget. That option would invite political debate that previous legislators had hoped to avoid by establishing the surcharges.

“I don’t want to see you guys competing for that. I’d rather see a separate source,” Rep. Ryan Osmundson, R-Buffalo, told Stinar during a tour of the facility Friday. “I’d like to first rectify what’s happening with the $10 fee.”

More cities and towns are establishing local ordinances that divert criminal fines to municipalities rather than the state, according to Bryan Lockerby, administrator of the Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation. That trend is causing the academy’s already insufficient funding to decrease.

The academy is barred by law from charging law enforcement agencies for the training, Stinar said. He and other officials from the department of justice will present alternative funding ideas at the finance committee’s March and June meetings.

The 20-acre campus was once the Montana Vocational School for Girls. Most indoor training is held in five buildings erected in the 1920s and four built in the 60s. Lectures are held in the academy’s only facility without infrastructure problems, which was built in 2010.

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