Since 1994, Yellowstone County and the City of Billings have been giving businesses a boost to start and to grow, through two different tax abatement programs. Originally, local businesses that received the benefit of those programs invested a grand total of $468,784,880 and in 2019 paid out $153,769,851 in salaries.

The fact that refineries, Phillips 66 and CHS, were among the 18 businesses approved for the abatement programs distorts somewhat the true impact of just the average size businesses. Factoring out those two investments, the remaining 16 businesses still invested a total of $70,971,703 and supported total payrolls of $45,997,078.

Total tax savings for all the participants was $3,823,817. Factoring out the refineries the tax savings were $234,629.

The data was presented this week to Yellowstone County Commissioners by Patrick Klugman, Senior Project Manager, Community Development with  Big Sky Economic Development.

The benefit of the programs is that they spawn economic growth in helping to entice new businesses and helping existing businesses to expand. Even with the tax breaks the businesses receive on new investment the dynamics of the economic process most often means the businesses wind up generating more in property tax revenues because of increasing property values and continued growth.

As a case in point, Klugman explained that one business whose program has expired – Motor Power Equipment —  made a capital investment of $2,530,00, which had a beginning market value of $1,900,000 but ended up with a market value of $5,400,00, which means the property increased in value $3,500,000. So while their beginning general tax bill was $42,555, they ended up with a tax bill in 2019 of $75,319 – an increase in tax revenue for local government of $32,764.

Under the tax abatement program and the final year of eligibility in 2018, the company saved $1,950 in property taxes, while paying out $4,630,992 in salaries. Now, of course their annual payroll continues and they are paying the full tax bill.

Other businesses that have expanded under the programs include American Steel, Aspen Air, Billings Flying Service, Dalco industries dba Teton Steel, D & M Enterprises (Auto Trim Design), Heights Eyecare, Home2Suites by Hilton, Home Science Tools, Jefferson Lines, Mercedes Benz of Billings, Montana Peterbilt, Northwest Scientific, Summit Resource International, Shipton’s Big R, TrueNorth Steel, Woods Powr Grip and Zoot Properties.

The 1988 state legislature launched the programs.

There is a 10-year program and a 5-year program.

The county began offering 10-year program in 1994 and the 5-year program in 2002. The city began offering both programs in 2005.

The 10-year program requires that 50 percent of the company’s revenues are generated from out of the state.

The five year program allows tax reductions on remodeling, reconstruction, and/or expansion of existing real property when a project makes improvements exceeding $500,000 to the property.  Property taxes on the value of the value of improvements may be reduced by 100 percent for the first five years, after which property returns to its full taxable value.

The 10-year program, called the New & Expanding Industry Tax Incentive Program, allows the taxable value of the real property to be reduced by 50% in the first 5 years. In years 6-10, the tax obligation incrementally increases by 10 percent a year and the savings decreases until the full 100% liability is required and the abatement expires in year 10. The 2017, the state legislature altered the program to allow local government discretion to reduce taxes by 50 percent or by 75 percent with an incremental 15 percent increase over the last five years.

Opens Registration

Once again the Montana Women’s Run is planning a virtual event because of COVID constraints, but this year is special because Montana’s premier race is celebrating its 40th anniversary on race day, May 8.  The opening of registration has been announced along with the unveiling of this year’s t-shirt design.

Each year participants receive a long-sleeve t-shirt sporting a unique design, the revelation of which is looked forward to with eager anticipation by thousands of women. This year, neighborhoods and trails will be filled with small groups of walkers and runners doing the 2-mile or 5-mile races, wearing the 2021 royal blue shirt. 

 The special 40th Anniversary shirt artwork was designed by a local female graphic design artist. The 2021 artwork is bright, celebratory and energetic, much like the event and participants. The shirt features Bitterroot-shaped flowers, in keeping with the Montana Women’s Run tradition, and a silhouette of a running shoe in acknowledgement of the design of one of the original Montana Women’s Run shirts. The circular placement of the type and shoelace embodies movement and communicates unity while symbolizing the wholeness of health and wellbeing for women. The fresh design brings the tradition of the Montana Women’s Run past and race’s movement into the future together in one design.

The Montana Women’s Run began in 1982 with 200 registrants and celebrated last year with over 4,820 women participating virtually around the world. Today, the race is recognized as the largest running event for women in the state of Montana, and one of the largest all-women’s races in the country. To date, the Montana Women’s Run has donated more than $1,457,500 to local organizations that promote women’s and children’s health and fitness. The major sponsors of the 2021 Montana Women’s Run are Billings Clinic, ExxonMobil, First Interstate Bank, Graphic Imprints, The Planet 106.7 and KTVQ.

To register for any of the events, visit   

T-shirts, race numbers and a small gift will be mailed to all participants who register before May 2. Proceeds from the event benefit charitable organizations in Billings that contribute to women’s health and wellness.

In the realm of real estate few names are as founded with Billings as that of Floberg. The company, now known as Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Floberg Realtors, has been purchased by Charles “Dan” and Beth Smith from founders Don and Marilyn Floberg and partners, Tom and Robin Hanel, and Linda Parker and Mike Oliver.

The company was founded in 1959 and its growth has paralleled that of Billings. Its sale incidentally coincided with the death of Don Floberg on December 15, 2020.

The Smiths have been part of the Floberg team for two years, having brought with them experience in real estate and in business. Tom Hanel will continue as the Managing Broker, and he and Robin will remain as a top sales team with the company.

After over a half century in the real estate business, Don and Marilyn decided six years ago to phase out of the business by selling part of it to the Hanels, with the idea that they would eventually become sole owners. That was the plan, but about a year ago the Hanels realized the priorities in their lives had changed and they were not as inclined to pursue ownership any more.

“We don’t plan to retire,” said Tom, “but we want to have more flexibility in our lives.” Like many people, Tom and Robin were discovering that with the responsibilities of aging parents and the joys of many grandchildren, there were other things they wanted to do.

After discussing the matter with the Flobergs, it was decided they would sell the whole business. Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Floberg Real Estate is a franchise with offices in Red Lodge and Columbus, as well as Billings.

The decision to sell was quite easy once the Smiths were identified as the prospective purchasers. They were the perfect couple to continue the Floberg legacy, said the Hanels. “They will make all of us proud.”

Don and Marilyn, still very active in the business, were initially concerned about being able to find new owners who would be committed to continuing the legacy and maintain the business as the “Number 1” agency in Billings and a top performer with Berkshire Hathaway, but in coming to know Dan and Beth as part of the Floberg team those concerns were allayed.

“They were completely on board,” said Hanel, and Don was pleased to be able to sign some of the closing documents days before he died.

The Smiths moved to Billings ten years ago from Kansas. Dan was in corporate management and Beth was for 15 years a real estate appraiser. Tom Hanel sold them their home in Billings, and the families quickly became good friends.

The Smiths, who have three children, quickly fell in love with Billings and Montana, and were not the least bit interested in moving, when Dan’s company wanted to transfer him to Denver.

The solution for the Smiths was to buy a business, about which they consulted with their good friend and real estate advisor, Tom Hanel. Hanel suggested that they both get their real estate licenses and join Floberg Real Estate. It was a perfect fit. “We love it here,” said Beth Smith, “the comradery, the atmosphere, the giving spirit of everyone. We are very blessed that it worked out the way it did.”

Charles “Dan” Smith says, “Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Floberg Real Estate is a superior company as a result of an amazing Franchise in Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, exceptional agents, and a top notch administrative team.”

Their primary goal, said Beth Smith, is “not to mess anything up.”

The Flobergs have built such a great foundation, she continued, “our challenge will be to continue what they started” in the business and in the community. The Flobergs have long been noted for their community involvement.

Hanel, who has been managing Floberg Real Estate, will continue as manager and a mentor to the Smiths for another year or so, but then phase into focusing on real estate sales with Robin, as the top real estate team. Robin stressed that neither of them have any intention of leaving the business any time soon, and that they want to be supportive of the Smiths.

Floberg Real Estate, the second oldest consecutive operating real estate business in Billings, employs six full time staff people and has almost 60 agents. The name will remain the same as will the trusted and dependable service and support for their clients.

A gravel mine that will help build a portion of the Billings Bypass got a green light for operations from Yellowstone County Commissioners on Tuesday.

Located at the east end of Johnson Lane in Lockwood, JDW Industrial Park 2 applied for a zoning special review from Heavy Industrial to Open Cut Mining.   The application which expands the already existing Kembel Post Gravel Mine was approved, as was recommended by the Zoning Board,  with standard criteria regarding how it must operate.  The expansion  involves 43.3 acres and was presented by Jennifer Kondracki, acting on behalf of owners James and Diane Weaver.

The application said that they expect to be in operation for about five years as they provide gravel for the building of the Yellowstone River highway bridge and right-of-way to the east of the property.

A proposal for a multi-use grandstand facility that would also accommodate horseracing in the same location as the recently removed grandstand was presented to county commissioners on Tuesday by Beth Koch, President of the Billings Turf Club.

Kock said that her organization was presenting the plan as an option for the Metra Park Master Plan for Metra Park’s Advisory Board and administrators, who are soliciting public input. County Commissioners acted to raze the historic grandstands late this fall along with a number of other older buildings at Metra Park, a county owned facility.

The proposed plan could bring horseracing back to Billings with a three-pronged approach of the county, Metra Park and the industry partnership and to help raise money for the project.

Kock advocated for the return of horseracing to Billings and Metra Park saying that at one time it was calculated that horseracing brought $4 million to the community ever year. It’s been ten years since Billings hosted any horseracing.

In 2021, there will be two race meets, one in Miles City and the other in Great Falls, for which the Board of Horseracing has provided $628,000, according to Koch. Koch said, “We could have gotten dates for Yellowstone County if there was a race track.” She went on to say that the Board of Horseracing wants to add another track.

Koch raises and trains horses which she races in Wyoming, where she said there are 1700 head of race horses, and where they will have 50 days of racing in 2021. Wyoming’s experience is something that should and could be duplicated in Montana, given the revenues expected to be generated through the advent of Historical Horseracing, which is expected to become a reality in Montana, believe many sport and gaming enthusiasts.

A Bozeman –based company is growing the market demand for a new technology it developed in response to COVID restraints. Alosant is real estate technology that allows better communication between a company and its clients.

The development of Alosant ResX Marketplace was partially funded through the COVID-19 Montana Innovation Grant, which the company received for its work on a branded app for the Cannery District in Bozeman. According to Cannery District Partner Barry Brown, “The Marketplace feature is a unique solution that has given our 60-plus businesses increased visibility and a direct line of communication to customers.” 

 While Alosant ResX has more than a 90 percent  adoption rate among 40-plus communities and successfully connects people with places,  the Marketplace feature takes engagement even further by digitally connecting local businesses directly with community residents through a dedicated page featuring a description of services, contact information, location details, images, links to websites and social pages and a “follow” button. 

CEO and co-founder April LaMon used her 25 years of C-suite experience to establish Alosant as a leader in the PropTech industry and says the “Alosant ResX Marketplace represents the ideal next step in our mission to create a unified residential experience, all in one place.”

A coalition of groups has challenged five Bureau of Land Management oil and gas lease sales encompassing 112 parcels and 58,297 acres of public lands in central and eastern Montana and North Dakota. The lawsuit, filed in Great Falls, says the agency failed to fully assess the potential harm oil and gas extraction would have on the area’s groundwater and ignored cumulative climate impacts. 

 The challenged sales occurred between July 2019 and September 2020. Earthjustice and the Western Environmental Law Center represent WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, Montana Environmental Information Center, and Waterkeeper Alliance in the litigation.

 The lawsuit follows a case filed in 2018 by some of the same groups in which a judge ruled the agency failed to adequately consider climate impacts and water supply risks from oil and gas drilling on 145,063 acres.

As bad as it was, the experience of other states shows that it could have been much worse for Montana.

While the economic restraints that were imposed because of COVID-19 has had a profound impact on the economies of Montana and the nation, “the surprise is that Montana’s job setback, while severe, has been milder than all but a handful of predominantly Mountain West states,” reports Patrick Barkey, Director of the Bureau of Business Research (BBER) at UM, which hosted a review of the state’s economy in a virtual program on Feb 1 and 2.

“To say that this has been a surprise is an understatement,” said Barkey. “The closure of the international border, the huge declines in air travel and the turbulence in oil market seemed to be formidable headwinds for many of our key industries. Yet the opportunities that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented Montana businesses, which are too numerous to list, have helped fill at least part of the hole,” Barkey wrote in the Montana Business Quarterly, published by BBER.

Usually each year the BBER conducts a tour of the state’s major cities presenting half-day seminars that provide a broad range of information about the state’s economy. This year, because of COVID restraints, the format changed to a two-day “zoom” conference, featuring a broad range of speakers.

In general, the state’s leading economists predict that Montana will, economically speaking, rise above the obstacles that the virus has thrown at us, but things will be different and there remains a lot of uncertainty.

“The state economy enters the new year with both momentum and uncertainty,” said Barkey. Predictions are difficult because “…the connection between economic growth and public health is not that simple anymore.”

Recessions of the past predominantly hit one market segment over others, but the COVID recession “left no corner of the state’s cities and regions untouched,” according to Barkey, “…it has unfolded in a way that bears little resemblance to previous economic downturns.”

Montana’s economic performance in 2020 “will undoubtedly go down as the worst in its post-war history.”

“Over the first two quarters of last year, Montana suffered a 8.2% payroll job decline, amounting to almost 39,000 jobs. The job losses were disproportionately felt in two industries – accommodations and food (28.1% decline), and arts and entertainment (27.3%) – that were most challenged by physical distancing. With the exception of government, however, no industries were spared. Health care’s job declines were especially surprising, given that the downturn was produced by a health crisis.”

With our focus on the number of jobs lost, there has been less awareness that wages in Montana did not decline in the same manner. On average income levels were minimally impacted. The reason:  jobs lost tended to be lower paying jobs, and in many cases Montanans who retained their jobs were called upon to work more hours.

Much of the data relating to the status of the state’s economy is still coming in, making projections for 2021 difficult. 

While the BBER’s forecast for 2020 was a growth rate of 2.3 percent for Montana, the reality is it may have declined to -2.1 percent. Not all the Montana data is in, but when it is “the growth rate for 2020 is estimated to be worse than the Great Recession of 2008-09.”

Nationally, COVID uncertainties make for greater unpredictability, but a decline in COVID concerns and greater confidence, “could make actual growth surpass the projections.”  Posing as a concern is the long-term impact on business of the “aggressive” actions of government.

The US economy will move slowly into 2021, accelerating as the year progresses. Growth next year is projected to be 4.2 percent “significantly above the long-term trend.”

Barkey predicted that investors in the national economy will focus more on segments of the economy connected to government, such as environmental and social issues. Banks, globally, will face greater risks, prices are likely to rise on finished goods and stabilize for services, which were pushed down by depressed demand.

The economic impact of government imposed regulations due to the COVID-19 virus was much the same in every corner of the state of Montana. There was far greater differences in economic activity between different areas of the state before COVID, than what appeared after.

All of the 2020 declines across the state were historically large, reported Patrick Barkey, Director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) at UM, during the Montana Economic Outlook virtual seminar.

“The small differences between cities largely stem from the relative size of the accommodations and food services in their local economies, which bore the brunt of COVID-related business declines,” according to Barkey in the Montana Business Quarterly.

Another factor that played a role in the differences was the degree to which government jobs sustain a community’s economy. Few if any government jobs, at any level of government, were suspended during the shutdowns on business and associated jobs in the private sector. So, for example, for that reason, Helena in Lewis & Clark County would fare better.

But Lewis & Clark County was not recession proof during the COVID downturn, according to Barkey. “The shutdown in schools helped produce the opposite – a disproportionate contraction in government employment and wages that produced more pain than elsewhere. This was partially offset by strength in retail and stability in health care. But the largess of the CARES Act brought plenty of federal spending into Montana in general, which bodes well for Helena’s immediate future.”

Lewis & Clark is among urbanized counties that most readily align with the average of the state’s economic performance. Other counties include Cascade, and Silver Bow.

The education, information and media sectors of Cascade County were more impacted by the economic restraints of the pandemic than most. The county’s retail sector, which serves a “large swath of north central Montana” held up better. The county, which is home to some of the most productive farmland in the state, can probably expect a better year for farm revenues, “thanks in part to government support programs.”

Because Silver Bow County has risen in prominence as a tourist destination in recent years, its economy was particularly impacted by the COVID crisis. Although, Silver Bow’s economy has been somewhat volatile in recent years, “Its earnings overall have always been greatly influenced by the wages and bonuses paid by its remaining mining employers, and the recent strength in copper prices augers well for the immediate future for that sector.”

The “high-flying county” of the state has been Gallatin County “for the better part of two decades, excepting the real estate collapse … during the Great Recession”.  Gallatin County has had the strongest rebound in the state, according to Barkey, who pointed to a 50 percent recovery of its passenger air traffic as an indicator.  As indicated by non-farm earnings, Gallatin County “has averaged annual growth of 6.3% since 2013. Only Madison County has  topped that growth in the same period. The Bozeman area’s economic strength comes from its university, access to Big Sky Ski area, and Yellowstone National Park. In recent years, it has received a boost from high-tech, professional services and manufacturing growth.

Yellowstone County is among the counties that have economic performances above the statewide average. Although the largest, and previously the state’s fastest growing economy, Yellowstone County “has tailed off of late.”

Prior to the oil price collapse of 2014-15, Billings enjoyed strong growth that reflected the economic conditions of the four-state region, for which it serves as a commercial hub. Both of its economic engines, energy and agriculture enjoyed very good years in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

“As a county with no oil reserves, Yellowstone’s connection to Bakken oil fields and other energy and mining activities is less apparent, but its numerous, high paying, mining, construction and other support services jobs have had a huge influence on the overall fortunes of the local economy. The Bakken’s thankfully brief, but severe, downturn in the months after the oil price turbulence of early 2020 creates more uncertainty for this part of the economy. The strength of the goods side of the national economy in the midst of this downturn and the emphasis on supply and logistics plays to the strengths of the Billings economy. As pandemic disruptions ease, the region’s health care industry, by far the state’s largest, should get back on track as well,” reported Barkey.

Overall growth in Flathead County has averaged 3.8% since 2013, second best of the state’s largest urban areas. Spending by nonresident visitors eclipsed wood products manufacturing in importance as an economic driver several years ago, although the latter’s presence remains significant, particularly in Columbia Falls. Flathead County also represents a key node in the state’s manufacturing landscape. The pandemic-related closure of the Canadian border immediately to the north has been an extra challenge for the economy in 2020.

Although hampered by enrollment declines at the University of Montana, Missoula County will likely be buoyed by growth in university research and growth in high-tech and professional services. It’s had an average growth of 3.6 percent since 2013.

The County’s recent growth history has suffered due in part to a decline in enrollment at the University of Montana, and the impact of the Great Recession. But, both Missoula and Ravalli Counties have experienced improvement since then. Missoula County lost its claim as the second largest to Bozeman, but, said Barkey, “… that says more about the growth in the latter than weakness in Missoula.”

About less populated areas of the state, Barkey said, “The oil patch counties … can expect to feel further fallout from the uneven performance of that commodity over the course of 2020, just as the coal producing areas bordering Wyoming have been challenged by the gloomier prospects for that economic driver.”

Other areas, especially along the northern border, have been helped by growth in government jobs and wages that occurred in 2020.  The out-migration of younger people toward cities remains a challenge to nonurban Montana.

How long should an American have to wait for the wheels of justice to turn – 5 years? 20 years? 30 years? – for the federal government to definitively rule on a routine mining patent request that could make or break the success of a family-owned business?  

And what recourse does that business owner have if the government, rather than approve or disapprove a request, just sits, and sits, and sits on it, leaving the applicant forever trapped in bureaucratic purgatory?   

That was the situation facing Monte Ray and his family in 1999, when they were forced to shutter a successful Mojave Desert cinder mine they had operated since his father Emerson staked the claim in  the 1940’s because the Department of Interior refused to decide, yay or nay, on a patent mining application the Rays made with the Bureau of Land Management in 1991. Instead of providing materials to help supply the Las Vegas housing boom, the Rays’ mine overnight became another California ghost town, which it remains to this day.   

Mountain States Legal Foundation last year made headway in breaking the logjam when a 2019 petition for a writ of mandamus it filed forced the Department of Interior to act on the application, resulting in a partial win for the Rays. The Rays were given a patent on only 10 acres of the original 692.5 acres they sought, but the Ray’s right to a patent was now established, laying the predicate for further legal action.   

This week’s MSLF filing challenges Interior’s stingy drawing of mine boundaries, arguing that the agency’s misrepresentation of the law and complete failure to consider basic facts vital to an accurate understanding of the situation rendered its long-delayed decision arbitrary and capricious in violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. MSLF wants the agency to go back to the drawing board and come back with a more carefully considered decision on the patent application, in light of the facts it ignored the first go-around. That’s the least the Rays are owed after the prolonged indifference and disdain the government showed towards the Rays, according to MSLF’s lead attorney on the case.  

“The Rays waited for nearly three decades to get an answer from the BLM on their patent application, and now that we’ve finally forced the government to respond, it gave them a slap in the face,” said MSLF Attorney David A. McDonald. “By filing this complaint, we’re making a statement that not even the federal government can get away with treating people this way.” 

Monte Ray’s niece, Robin Ray, slammed the government’s mistreatment of her family as unjust and disgraceful. “Government tyranny has many faces; sometimes it comes in the form of a flagrant disregarding of an American family’s request to continue its family business,” Ray said in response to the latest filing, “Just ignore them and they will go away, is what they planned. But we didn’t go away. Is this any way for the American government to treat its hard-working citizens?”