Helena officials are considering the next step regarding the fire station


So what do you do when you get approval from voters to build a new fire station, but you may not have the staff to fill the station?

The City-County Building in downtown Helena.

The City-County Building in downtown Helena.

THOM BRIDGE, independent record

The Helena City Commission may have to wonder after Tuesday’s election, as initial unofficial results showed a $7 million bond issue for a new station slightly ahead of schedule, while a mill levy to hire 15 firefighters and nine police officers failed.

According to unofficial results, the bond issue was ahead by 98 votes (4,985-4,887) as of 11:30 a.m. Wednesday. The race was listed as 50%-50%.

The mill levy trailed by 1,037 votes, 4,616-3,784 or 55%-45%.

The ballot measures were sold as a one-two punch: build the station and let fire crews fill it.

The 20-year bond will put a station on the north side of the tracks, something the city doesn’t currently have. Such a station was noted during the 2007 and 2022 planning efforts. It would be located, along with a training center, on city-owned land on Washington Street, near the city’s water treatment plant.

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City commissioners said they would discuss the next step at upcoming meetings. Fire Chief Jon Campbell declined comment Wednesday, saying he wanted to wait until the election results were official before saying anything.

He was asked why he thought the mill levy had been defeated.

“It’s a real challenge to give voice to the psyche of the electorate when they can only give a yes or no answer,” he said, adding that the city presented the voting public with a proposal that was considered a reasonable request was considered.

Mayor Wilmot Collins on Wednesday thanked the community for realizing the need for a third fire station and said the commission will likely have discussions about going back to voters to increase fire and police personnel.

“We will go back to the voters and let them know where we stand,” he said.

Collins said he heard from voters during the campaign that the state’s property tax increase would make it difficult for them to support the levy.

“The one consistent reason they gave was property taxes,” Collins said.

Commissioner Andy Shirtliff said some people got their property tax increases the same day they got their votes.

“They voted with their wallets,” he said. “It was a pocketbook decision in a year when property tax increases were significant.”

Shirtliff noted that the property tax increases not only affected the city on Tuesday, but also the school elections in June, when three ballot measures failed.

The city had made efforts to inform the public about the proposal. Officials said on social media in late May that Police Chief Brett Petty and Campbell had given their 11th citizen group presentation on the voting issues, capping off an incredibly busy few months for the leaders of our police and fire departments. It was also the 25th educational activity since the end of March.

Coffee with the Chiefs (copy)

From left to right, Helena resident John Mott, City of Helena Public Information Officer Jacob Garcin, Police Chief Brett Petty and Fire Chief Jon Campbell gather at Scenic Brew for coffee in April. People were invited to discuss public safety issues.

Phil Drake, independent record

The two chiefs had also made themselves available to the public in various coffee shops in the city.

Shirtliff said it takes about a year to fill a new station.

“Those conversations will take place in the coming weeks and days,” he said.

Collins said city officials were glad they cleared one hurdle.

“We’ll go back to the drawing board and see what’s best,” he said. “We are between a rock and a hard place.”

He said officials will meet all stakeholders. He also noted that city staff, such as Public Information Officer Jacob Garcin, Consultant Jeff Mangan and the police and fire chiefs, were “working extremely hard.”

Collins said he believes the vote on the mill levy was slightly smaller than what the count showed.

“I still think it was a close call,” he said. “I always tell people that I live in a well-informed community. We need to let the community know that there is still a need for funding for police and firefighters.”

Assistant Editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.