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Mayor wants to downgrade Havre to Class 2 city

Controversial plan could affect fire department  

 

Last updated 7/5/2016 at 8:35pm



City Council will be asked tonight to make Havre a Class 2 city under state law, changing its decades-old status as a Class 1 city.

While some say the vote is a routine matter acknowledging what is already a fact, others say it is a thinly veiled attempt to curtail city firefighting services and a subtle admission that the city’s best days are behind it.

Under Montana law, cities with a population of more than 10,000 are Class 1 cities. Havre had more than 10,000 people until the 2000 Census, when it slipped below the limit.

Then-state Rep. John Musgrove, D-Havre, at the behest of then-Mayor Bob Rice, secured legislation that would allow cities between 9,000 and 10,000 population to choose what designation they wanted. The law was designed especially for Havre because no other Montana cities fell into that population category.

But Mayor Tim Solomon said the 2010 Census showed further population decline — down to 9,300 — and there is no indication the city is likely to exceed 10,000 any time soon.

So, he said, Class 2 is appropriate because “that’s where we are.”

The next-biggest Class 1 city is Kalispell, which is more than twice the size of Havre, he said. Havre has more in common with other Class 2 cities, he said.

He called a flurry of opposition on Facebook pages that has developed since the council’s agenda was released Thursday “big hype about nothing.”

The mayor said that city voters will be asked this fall to adopt a city manager form of government. It might be easier to attract a qualified city manager at a reasonable salary if the city were Class 2, he said. If the city remains Class 1, he said, Havre would be in competition for executive talent with much larger cities.

Dan Clark, the director of the Local Government Center at Montana State University, a former Choteau  mayor and an expert on local government in Montana, said for the most part city residents won’t notice any differences if the classification is changed.

The big exception, he said, is that Class 1 cities must have full-time 24-hour-a-day fire departments, while Class 2 cities have the option of cutting back on fire and ambulance services. Such reductions don’t come automatically, he said.

Solomon called the question of the fire department status a “separate question,” and said City Council would have to bring that matter up separately if it wanted to pursue the matter.

There has been considerable dispute in recent months between Local 601 Havre chapter of The International Association of Fire Fighters and the city administration. The labor contract between the city and the union was decided by an arbitrator and other matters are in or headed toward arbitration.

Solomon said the city is up against its taxing limit and has to cut back on funding for the Havre-Hill County Library and other projects to pay for the fire department.

However, IAFF auditors have reviewed city finances and say the city’s financial picture is far rosier than city officials contend.

In a Facebook post this weekend, council member Caleb Hutchins questioned what was behind Solomon’s decision to seek the classification change.

“Given the acrimony between the city and the fire department employees, I’m worried that there are ulterior motives in the proposed class downgrade,” he said.

“I think it sets a bad public message to the residents of Havre and to the rest of the state: That we think Havre doesn’t have the potential to grow and thrive, that our best days are behind us,” the council member said.

According to the 2014 U.S. Census estimates, the city’s population is estimated at just under 9,800 people, an upswing since 2010. The next complete Census will be in 2020.

Clark said that with the city considering a city manager, this might be the right time to consider a change of classification.

“Tim might be wise to do this now,” he said. “That would enable the new city manager to make proposals about the fire department without having to deal first with the question of a classification downgrade.”

He said the lower classification might help the city attract some federal grants that are aimed for smaller communities.

Generally, though, he said, applicants looking for city manager positions are attracted by the population, not the classification.

Montana salaries for city managers are lower than elsewhere in the country, he said.

Recently he saw an advertisment for a new city manager for the city of Livingston, which is smaller than Havre, offering a minimum salary of $80,000.

Next to it, he said, was an ad for a small city looking for a manager at a salary $20,000 higher.

If there is widespread opposition to any cuts in the fire department, he said, opponents could seek to have a referendum on a mill levy to fund the fire department.

City Council members are already considering a mill levy to fund repairs to city streets.

Former council member Allen “Woody” Woodwick proposed that the city vigorous pursue annexation of properties adjoining the city limits as a way to attract more tax revenues and bring the city’s population up to 10,000 once again.

He said the mayor’s proposal “sounds like a thinly veiled response to deal with labor issues between the firefighters union and the city.”

But Clark said the change of classification would give the city a bargaining chip in the city’s contract talks with the firefighters union, even if the city never actually moves away from a full-time department.

 

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