Kalispell Chamber Highlights Need for Public Safety Levy

City officials continued their campaign at the Feb. 20 Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon where they educated the audience about the $4.6 million levy that will appear on a mail-in ballot on March 19

By Maggie Dresser
A Kalispell Fire Department engine at Kalispell Fire Station No. 62 on Jan. 20, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

As part of the city of Kalispell’s educational campaign to bring awareness to a $4.6 million public safety levy, officials presented at the Feb. 20 Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon, telling the audience that the municipality’s population growth has outpaced its resources.

Kalispell City Manager Doug Russell, Police Chief Jordan Venezio and Fire Chief Dan Pearce urged the public to vote in the mail-in ballot special election on March 19.

If the levy is successful, it will add 11 law enforcement staff to the Kalispell Police Department (KPD) and 27 firefighter and medical staff positions. The city will also add a third fire station and purchase additional equipment within the fire department.

Homeowners would pay $82.22 in annual taxes per $100,000 of their assessed property value.

City staff proposed the levy in response to reports conducted by the Center for Public Safety Management (CPSM), which concluded that the city’s growth has far exceeded the available resources. Specifically, Kalispell is far behind the national average in response times.

In Kalispell, the law enforcement average response time to high priority calls is 9.1 minutes, almost twice as long as the national average of five minutes.

“If you think of 30 seconds or 60 seconds passing when you have a critical emergency – when you need help and when you need law enforcement to respond, nine minutes is an enormous amount of time to be waiting,” Venezio said.

Authorities say the call volumes in recent years have spiked while the department has been unable to add staff to keep up with the demand.

Kalispell Police Department’s armored Special Response Team vehicle on March 23, 2022. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Between 2018 and 2022, citizen-initiated calls increased by 22% while violent crime calls have increased by 87%.

The increase in calls has resulted in more reactive policing instead of proactive policing, which helps prevent emergencies.

“We have seen that year over year – proactive policing is decreasing,” Venezio said.

If the levy is successful, KPD would add one to two additional officers per shift plus a crime analyst to reduce response times and increase proactive policing efforts. The hiring process would begin at the start of fiscal year 2025 in July.

Chief Pearce faces similar challenges at the fire department and says he doesn’t have enough staff to adequately provide care for the city, where Kalispell’s average response time has climbed to 9.7 minutes – more than twice the national average of 4 minutes.

“Geographically, we’re spread out,” Pearce said. “A new station would definitely help with that and cut our response times down.”

Pearce said they operate with roughly the same number of employees as they did in 2006 and his staff often has to divert to higher priority calls or rely on their mutual aid partners.

“We have had some years where 500 calls were given to Evergreen or Smith Valley,” Pearce said. “That shouldn’t be a burden to other agencies.”

If the levy passes, a third fire station would be built on a city-owned property on Farm to Market Road to address the growth in the West Valley and 27 firefighter and medical staff positions would be added.

While the city has added public safety positions incrementally over the years, Russell said the police and fire departments already take up 74% of the general fund and there is no additional money available to cover the costs of needed personnel and equipment.

“You could get rid of everything else in our city’s general fund and it still wouldn’t be enough,” Russell said.

Even as the city gains new residents and property tax collections grew by 4%, those extra dollars have not kept up with inflation, which has spiked costs by 6%, he said.

Russell encouraged the audience to send their ballots by the March 19 election to decide.

“We will provide the level of service the community supports in that avenue and that’s the beauty of going out with this levy – the community has the opportunity to have their say in the services that are being provided for them,” Russell said.

A community outreach event with the Kalispell Firefighters Day of Action will take place on Saturday, Feb. 24 at 10 a.m. at Black Rifle Coffee Company in Kalispell. Free coffee and door knocking training will be provided.

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