As Whitefish has grown in number of homes and become a popular place for visitors there has been impacts to the emergency services in the city.
The Pilot recently held a survey asking folks what the top issues are facing the community. Topping the list of concerns was growth. Related to concerns about residential growth and the impact from the influx of visitors to town primarily during the summer, was the impact that has on traffic and public safety.
Police Chief Bill Dial has seen the impact of growth in Whitefish in his nearly two decades with the department.
The police department in 2011 received about 9,200 requests for service calls and those calls spiked at a high of 14,000 calls in 2016. Calls for the last two years have leveled at about 13,000 calls per year, according to Dial.
“Growth is a huge thing for us,” he said. “The biggest issue for the police department is being proactive and being reactive to calls is cutting in to that. Growth is good, but to a point. It’s about having the infrastructure to deal with growth.”
Dial would rather see his officers out patrolling in cars, on bikes or by foot in efforts to prevent crime rather than responding after crime has already occurred such as after a car has been broken into.
“If we’re out patrolling we can be deterring crime,” he said. “We can be in schools talking to kids about family violence.”
Mayor John Muhlfeld recently said the biggest challenges Whitefish faces from a planning perspective is infrastructure deficiencies and the demand growth is placing on public services including police, fire, emergency services and parks.
“No one wants to increase taxes, but as growth continues, the demand on public services and infrastructure is only increasing,” he said.
Residential construction for the last decade in Whitefish has mostly been on an upward trend. Residential construction from 2009 through 2018 saw a total of 796 new residential units receive building permits including for single-family, townhouse and multifamily units, according to Whitefish Planning and Building Department figures.
Whitefish’s population was 7,608 in 2017, according to U.S. Census data, compared with a decade earlier when the population was listed at 6,357.
Census data also shows that between 2013 to 2017, there was about 3,296 households in Whitefish and only 57.9 percent of housing units were owner-occupied.
Visitors to Whitefish use the amenities and rely on the services provided by the city. Visitation in Whitefish, though there have been some dips and spikes throughout the years, seems to be following a trend of steady increase.
Bed tax collections in Whitefish have seen a steady increase from 2007 to 2017, according to numbers from the University of Montana’s Institute for Tourism and Recreation Research. In 2017, there was $1.1 million collected in Whitefish from the bed tax, which is the highest amount collected in the previous 10 years. There was $574,000 collected in bed tax revenue in 2007.
Collections of the 4 percent tax on lodging saw a dip in 2009, but every other year from 2007 to 2017 has shown a steady increase in collections.
Whitefish began collecting a resort tax in 1996 on lodging, bar and restaurant food and drinks and “luxury” retail items.
The tax was first implemented at 2 percent in 1996 with 65 percent collected going to street and water projects, 25 percent to a property tax rebate and 5 percent kept by business owners to administer the tax. Voters in 2016 approved a 1 percent increase in the tax with 75 percent of collections going to the Haskill Basin conservation easement and 25 percent toward property tax rebates.
Though there have been years when the resort tax collections decreased compared to the prior year, collections have mostly grown. In fiscal year 2009, the city collected a total of $1.6 million in resort taxes and in fiscal year 2018 it collected more than $4 million.
According to the Montana Department of Transportation traffic counts, the annual average daily traffic count for U.S. Highway 93 entering Whitefish was about 21,000 vehicles in 2018. While the counts have fluctuated in the last decade, the same spot had 18,540 average daily vehicle trips in 2009.
Dial says dealing with traffic-related calls, such as accidents and traffic congestion, peaks when visitor numbers increase in the summer and during the Christmas holiday drawing focus to those calls. Those types of calls take officers away from being proactive, he notes.
Dial says more funding is needed for the police and fire departments to respond to the increased number of calls.
“Allowing for more staffing we could be more proactive in crime prevention,” he said. “We could get out of cars and talk to the merchants, but we’re so darn busy right now we can’t do that.”