On Tuesday evening, Broadwater County Sheriff Wynn Meehan heard from people in the north end of the county about what they want to see from public safety services – and how they want to see them funded.
Meehan held a community meeting at the Big Bull Bar and Grill in Winston – the second in a series of three meetings around the county. He discussed the services his office currently provides and what it would take to continue or expand those services.
Meehan said the Broadwater County Sheriff Office’s current funding structure isn’t sustainable.
“I think everybody knows that there’s a financial problem coming up, and we’re going to have to find a funding solution for that,” he said. “But also with that, we want to be able to provide the service that the people want.”
Meehan has argued for several years that too much of his office’s budget comes from money for holding other counties’ inmates in the Broadwater County Jail. That funding has grown from around $525,000 in the 2010 fiscal year to more than $837,000 in 2019.
However, the revenue is expected to drop dramatically in the next year. Broadwater County is currently holding about 20 inmates from Lewis and Clark County. When Lewis and Clark County’s detention center expansion project is completed later this year, Meehan estimates his office will lose more than $600,000.
Bill Jarocki, a consultant with Voltaic Solutions, presented budget projections during Tuesday’s meeting. He said the loss of Lewis and Clark County inmates could force the sheriff’s office to cut some employees. He argued closing the jail wouldn’t solve the issue, because Broadwater County would have to pay to house its inmates in other counties’ facilities.
Meehan is currently planning to ask Broadwater County voters to approve a public safety levy, to ensure the sheriff’s office won’t have to cut back on services.
“We’re going to have to ask you for money; I’m not going to lie,” he said during Tuesday’s meeting. “But what we ask for is dependent on what the public’s needs are.”
Meehan said a levy that would simply cover the expected shortfall would increase taxes about $132 a year on a $200,000 home. However, he said some residents have said they would like to see more services, rather than simply the status quo. He said his current budget does not allow for a dedicated detective or for proactive patrols in the northern or southern ends of the county. The sheriff’s office is responding to more calls, but its staffing is actually down.
At Tuesday’s meeting, several residents said they would like to see a greater patrol presence in northern Broadwater County. Some said they understand the sheriff’s office’s needs, but that they are concerned about the idea of property taxes continuing to go up. They said they want to see county leaders to consider all options to find funding.
The county will have until March 9 to submit a proposed levy for the June ballot. Meehan said he wants to take in all the feedback from this series of meetings in order to determine what he can ask voters to support.
“There’s nothing real definitive at this juncture, and a lot of it’s more speculation on what it might look like,” he said. “I haven’t heard anyone say, ‘Yeah, let’s get rid of our cops, let’s shut down our law enforcement, let’s close down our jail.’ No one’s said that.”
The third and final public safety community meeting will be Wednesday evening in Townsend. The meeting will begin at 6 p.m. in the library’s Community Room.
The sheriff’s office is also inviting residents to take an online survey, available here .