GREAT FALLS — Great Falls voters will be asked to determine the fate of a pair of public safety issues on November 7,
While the city has been educating the public about the safety levy and bond issues, another group is advocating for the measures.
They've enlisted the help of a retired high ranking Drug Enforcement Administration agent to get their story out.
“You have an issue with crime. You have the issue with drug traffickers. You have an issue that drug traffickers bringing drugs into your community. And it springboards to the reservations up north,” said Stacy Zinn, who up until several weeks ago was Montana’s resident Agent in Charge for the DEA.
In that position, Zinn oversaw the agency’s efforts throughout the state. In addition to Billings and MIssoula, one of the agency’s offices is in Great Falls, a place she calls interesting because of a lot of generational families distributing drugs.
She says Mexican cartels have changed their dynamic so they can deal with local traffickers from afar, giving the cartel less exposure.
“The prices are starting to lower, even more so for both fentanyl and for meth,” said Zinn. “That allows for the locals in Cascade County to start bringing in more supply and selling the drugs for a cheaper price, which will bring it which will bring more users to the table.”
Zinn was with the DEA for 23 years. She also supervised the agency’s tactical division team in Eastern Monana. She has extensive experience in the foreign arena dealing with narcoterrorism in the Middle East, South American and the Mexican border.
With a public safety levy and bond issue upcoming, Zinn says Great Falls voters can have a say in battling the drug problem.
“Any type of focus that you have on crime, any type of tools, whether it be outside resources, where be outside money or money being raised to support your local law enforcement, that's always beneficial,” said Zinn.
Zinn says most crime can be traced back to drug use.
She says Great Falls will see population growth and with it more crime.
Terry Thompson is a former realtor and Treasurer for Electric City Citizens for Public Safety, a group advocating for the levy and bond. She says the city’s crime rate is having a negative impact on its economic development.
“I know of one local developer who has absolutely been frustrated because he's tried to bring in a couple of things and they've said, “No, we've looked at your crime and for the population, those numbers are too high for what we require to come into your community,” said Thompson.
Thompson says the drug problem is surprisingly more prevalent than many people think.
“There's prominent people in this town that are hiding within plain view that are running drugs in this community,” said Thompson.
The ballot issues would raise money for 24 additional police officers, including two new School Resource Officers. It would also add 32 firefighters, two dispatchers, eight new courts and legal positions, equipment, and a new fire station.
Thompson says the bond issue would help build a new fire station on the south end of Great Falls.
“That area is growing so significantly with medical, but the majority of the calls that they're getting are from senior citizens when they need to go and resuscitate someone or where there's a medical emergency,” said Thomspon. “It's happening in that side of town more than it is on the north side.”
According to the Safety in the Falls website, a city sponsored educational tool about the levy, Great Falls hasn’t passed public safety funding since 1969.
Thompson says more recently, the Electric City has been more conservative than other large Montana cities in allocating funding, citing a study by the Frontier Institute.
“Great Falls out of the top seven is the most conservative,” said Thompson. “Our budget in ten years only increased 2.25% a year.”
Safety in the Falls has conducted a series of meetings and forums on the levy. Thompson says she doesn’t think attendees are coming away with an understanding of response time for police and fire personnel and the amount on duty at any given time.
“Because they're moving those people around,” said Thompson. “If, for example, there's a domestic dispute, the officers go there and a supervisor may go there as well. That is of high significance or high priority for them to go in and to pull that.”
Thompson adds another issue brought on by a lack of police manpower is the need for prioritizing calls for crime traffic and quality of life.
So, if there's a crime going on, that's going to get the priority over something else," said Thompson. “A domestic dispute will get higher priority than something else. Or even someone breaking into someone's garage and stealing their lawnmower, or something is going to be a lower priority.
Both Thompson and Zinn understand that the financial hit will be felt by taxpayers. If the levy passes and is fully realized, the owner of a 200-thousand-dollar home can expect to see a more than 23-dollar per month increase.
Thompson says that impact won’t be felt right away.
“Realistically, if this passes, it isn't going to happen until 2024, year from now is when your tax bill is going to reflect it” said Thompson. What citizens also need to understand is that the police are not going to go out and hire 20 some officers the day after the levy passes as well. That's going to be progressive over several years.”
“So it's better for the area to start preparing for the not only for now, but also for the future,” said Zinn.
Thompson says the city is stretched so thin about public safety that if the levy and/or bond fails, the issue will come back to voters soon.
She says people impacted by crime understand the need for the levy. She adds that people have brought forth suggestions to meetings and forums, but some are just not practical or legal.
She says one thing that could be done is for citizens to push lawmakers for serious property tax reform in Montana.
“There are programs available for senior citizens and people that are disabled for them to get some property tax relief. But I don't think that's enough,” said Thompson “So many people can only carry the bulk of the burden for so long.”