So at the doors when I say something like, “We haven’t had a public safety mill levy pass in 15 years,” sometimes people are like, “That’s right, police and fire need more support,” and sometimes people say, “But property taxes.”
And I get it. Because in Billings, the ONLY way to raise revenue is through property taxes. So as our city expands just in sheer breadth/sprawl, as our population grows and the need for services increases, the only people who can make up this shortfall are those who own homes/buildings.
It’s a precarious system, this one-legged tax structure.
Because it means that of the half a million people who visit Billings every year to shop, dine, and go to our movie theaters, they collectively pay zero dollars in tax to the city. While that may not seem like a big deal on its face—they might only be here for a couple hours—trucks are beating up our roads, there are car accidents that involve police; there’s crime and water consumption and new visitors to the library. These things all cost money.
What’s noteworthy to me about the first chart is that in Billings we actually have the *lowest* property taxes in the state. Most other cities have already beefed up their collections, which is part of how Bozeman and Missoula are funding things like new buildings, trails, education, and other revitalization efforts. Efforts that are clearly working in terms of luring the under-40 work set to these cities.
That isn’t to say that just passing a bunch of mills is an ideal solution, but I think these numbers are useful in evaluating how we stack up against other commerce hubs in our region. And it helps answer questions about how these cities are able to fund new projects while Billings is throwing a huge percentage of our budget at public safety, just to keep it barely afloat.