The mayor's office at the Civic Center in downtown Great Falls is up for grabs in November, and four candidates are vying for the seat. Two city commission seats are opening up, too, with five hopefuls in the mix. Credit: Zachary Schermele / MTFP

GREAT FALLS — Earlier this year, a routine traffic stop on the city’s south side took a violent turn

Tanner Lee, a senior officer in the Great Falls Police Department, was shot in the chest and arm by a fleeing suspect. He was in rough shape after surgery, but his bulletproof vest staved off the worst. The incident was part of a string of five shootings in Great Falls during February and March that spooked local law enforcement.

Almost six months later, concerns over violent crime still loomed large Monday night at a neighborhood council forum for local political candidates. 

“Something needs to be done,” said Shannon Wilson, a retired engineer who’s running for city commission in part because the shooting happened near her apartment. 

Public safety is among a handful of issues clearly taking center stage in the race to elect new city leaders this fall. The mayor’s office is up for grabs come November, as are two spots on the four-person commission. A major public safety mill levy — the first in decades — will also be on the ballot. 

Yet tied up in the consternation about public safety is a web of other stubborn challenges in Great Falls: housing and homelessness, pervasive drug use, a lack of drug prevention and mental health services, traffic congestion. The list goes on. 

Amid changing political winds in the Electric City, who wins in November will acutely shape the city’s ability to meet a lofty new set of growth goals — that is, if growth, and the challenges that come with it, are something the long-stagnant population wants. 

“The growth is here,” said Eric Hinebauch, an insurance agent and current city commissioner who’s seeking reelection. “And more’s coming.”

Public safety funding reaches a breaking point

The last time Great Falls passed a public safety levy was the same year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. 

Though the population, per city data, was roughly the same around 1969 as it is today, Great Falls has ballooned geographically since then. Kicking the can down the road on tax hikes, as mayoral candidate and former state legislator Casey Schreiner put it Monday, has strained city services to a breaking point. 

Without the levy, he said, “more firefighters are going to die and more police officers are going to get killed.”

If it passes, homes valued at $100,000 would pay about $140 more every year in property taxes. Homes twice that value would pay roughly $280. 

Nearly all the mayoral and commission candidates support it. Kendall Cox, a retired teamster who described himself as the most conservative person in most rooms, appears to be the lone exception. He’d rather the city focus on growing its tax base, he said at the Monday forum, to fund additional public safety measures.

Mayoral candidate and county undersheriff Cory Reeves wasn’t swayed to support the hike just because of his law enforcement background. About two months ago, he said, the price tag for his home insurance skyrocketed by $642. That’s because, according to a pro-levy city website, a national insurance rating service recently downgraded the fire department “due to a lack of proper fire and medical coverage for a geographical area.”

Candidates for local office fielded a range of questions at a neighborhood council forum at the Great Falls Clinic on Monday. Credit: Zachary Schermele / MTFP

“Our current public safety funding and staffing levels are not meeting the community’s present and projected needs,” the city website says. 

The fire department’s response time is two minutes longer than the nationally recommended standard, the city says. The National Fire Protection Association also recommends that 15 firefighters respond to any single-family structure fire, but GFFR only averages about 13 at a time. 

“We have defunded public safety,” said Joe McKenney, a city commissioner who is running for mayor. “We’re going to pay for it one way or another.” 

Crime is a murkier picture

One of the main goals of the levy, according to its supporters, is to shore up staffing in the police department, which could alleviate some of the unease over crime. 

Micaela Stroop, a commission candidate and former child protection specialist for the state, summed up that uneasiness Monday when she said she doesn’t let her children run around the city the way she did growing up.

“My kids definitely don’t have the childhood that I had in Great Falls,” she said. 

While city statistics show that shoplifting declined last year and burglaries remained around typical levels, more recent data from the Montana Board of Crime Control, which counts the number of victims of violent crime in the county rather than the city, show the annual number of victims has risen substantially in recent years. That number hovered in the 200s between 2013 and 2017. Since 2018, the number has been between 388 and 447. It’s at 207 so far in 2023. 

That the issue is top of mind in the fall election could be traced back to the rash of shootings earlier this year. It also is likely tied to a controversial homelessness encampment that cropped up downtown last summer, where city officials reported “drug use, harassment of passers-by, assaults and other inappropriate behaviors.”

“With our homelessness goes the substance abuse, the mental health issues, and even some of the violence we’ve had,” Stroop said at Monday’s forum.

Michael Yegerlehner, a Great Falls counselor, stressed at a public hearing about the encampment more than a year ago that the city is facing a mental health crisis. He said he and other counselors were “booked out months” with patients. Waiting lists are weeks long for recovery services at the Montana Chemical Dependency Center, he said. Annual meth seizures in Cascade County, meanwhile, have nearly doubled over the last 10 years. 

Affordable housing is in short supply 

The encampment was largely a function of too few prevention services and an ongoing housing crunch. 

“It’s a revolving cycle,” Stroop said Monday. “They can’t get clean and get sober and get jobs if they don’t have somewhere to live around clean and sober people.”

An analysis from December 2021 commissioned by the Great Falls Development Authority confirmed the pandemic caused an influx of wealthier out-of-staters who overwhelmed the local housing market. Without ramping up to meet demand in the next decade, there will be a “significant under-supply” of houses and rentals, the study said. 

“If I lost my house right now,” said Abby Brown, another candidate for mayor, “me and my 5-year-old would have nowhere to go.” 

How to address the housing problem is perhaps one of the biggest differentiators between candidates this fall. Rick Tryon, a city commissioner running for reelection, said he doesn’t believe the onus is on the city. 

“Great Falls does not have the resources or the mandate to solve the homeless situation,” he said. “That is up to the state agencies and nonprofits.” 

Other hopefuls, including Schreiner and Stroop, think the city bears just as much responsibility. 

The housing predicament was perhaps best demonstrated by a failed bid earlier this year to rezone an RV park next to the city’s busiest intersection for luxury apartments. Supporters of the effort worked hard to attract a developer and said the complex would be crucial to meeting the city’s projected housing needs.

Opponents worried about traffic congestion. They also wondered where the RV park residents would go in the face of few other options for affordable housing. 

After a hectic planning board meeting, the city greenlit the project. Except it was too late — the developer had already pulled out

It was a situation that struck at the heart of the development debate underlying every issue in the fall election. In this year’s budget, the city is updating its growth policy for the first time in 10 years amid the arrival of a medical school, new projects at the Malmstrom Air Force Base and an expansion of the oil refinery

The election is Nov. 7. 

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Zach Schermele, born and raised in Great Falls, was a multimedia journalist for the Montana Television Network in 2020. He graduated with a degree in political science from Columbia University, where he was an award-winning editor at the Columbia Daily Spectator, and has worked as a reporting intern at NBC News, POLITICO and the Chronicle of Higher Education.