HELENA – Helena city leaders could ask residents later this year whether they want to raise their property taxes to pay for additional firefighters.
The Helena City Commission has asked staff to put together a proposal for a fire safety levy. If commissioners decide to move forward with the plan, it could appear on the ballot in May or June.
City Manager Ron Alles said the levy would likely raise about $750,000 annually for the Helena Fire Department – about $100,000 each for six new firefighters and $150,000 for capital improvements, like new rescue trucks and other equipment.
The cost of the levy would be about $15 a year on a $100,000 home and $30 a year on a $200,000 home.
Alles said the city is planning to apply for a federal grant through the Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response, or SAFER, program. That grant could provide funding to hire additional firefighters, but the money would expire after three years.
“If you get the guys on board through the grant, you’ve got to be able to fund them afterwards,” said Alles. “That’s the intent behind this particular levy.”
The Helena Fire Department currently operates with three shifts of 10 firefighters each. Because of vacations and other absences, the department maintains a minimum staffing level of seven firefighters per day.
If the levy goes forward, Alles said two firefighters will likely be added to each shift, and the minimum staffing level will be raised to eight or nine.
Alles said Helena city leaders previously proposed a public safety levy to expand fire and police protection several years ago, but voters rejected it.
“This is just another attempt to accomplish much of what that was intended to accomplish,” he said.
City staff will now work on finalizing potential language for the levy. The city commission would then hold a public hearing on the proposal before deciding whether to put it on the ballot. Alles said it might go before voters on May 8, the school election date, but that it will more likely be on June 5, when the federal primary is held.
In last year’s city elections, Helena voters elected a self-described “progressive slate” of candidates, including Mayor Wilmot Collins and Commissioners Andres Haladay and Heather O’Loughlin. They campaigned on increasing fire department funding and staffing levels.