Are you ready to accelerate your company’s journey towards Operational Excellence? Do you have high potential employees motivated to learn and prepare for Lean certification?

The Montana Manufacturing Extension Center has just added a new session of its Operational Excellence course, which has been updated to reflect the latest core material and test requirements for the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (SME) Bronze Certificate.  The 6-week, in-person course will be offered at MMEC’s main offices in Bozeman, from March 28 to May 10.  It will combine interactive activities, real-world problem solving, and classroom instruction, offering participants solid preparation for certification testing as well as proven strategies that can be immediately applied at work. Participants will:

* Learn essential elements of Lean, Theory of Constraints, and Six Sigma

* Gain professional mentoring and earn professional credentials

* Become engaged leaders in improving company performance

As a manufacturer, your company can benefit from the return on investment from the projects implemented by employees trained in OpEx tools, and expand your efforts toward company-wide, transformational change. For details contact MMEC Business Advisor and OpEx Instructor Alistair Stewart at Alistair. stewart@

By Denis Pitman, Yellowstone County Commissioner

The question on many people’s minds, and an important topic for our community.  I would like to offer some answers, clarify what is going on, and hopefully put much of this into context. 

Within the past five years we have seen significant deterioration of the property and buildings at MetraPark.  Things were becoming dangerous, and the possibility of people getting hurt were increasing. 

We began by doing an assessment of the property and cost of saving barns and the grandstands.  It was determined that cost of just maintenance and stopping the hazards from getting worse were more of a liability than just removing them. That would lead to conversations about what should or could the entire 189 acres look like with this new foot print?  What did people want to use the property for within the next several generations? 

At the same time, the general manager would indicate that he was going to be retiring.

Then we were hit with a global pandemic that would change everything. While it has been claimed that things were done without transparency, that is not accurate, and in fact things have been delayed and extended to make sure that people were aware of what was being discussed throughout the process. With that, the Board of County Commissioners, the MetraPark Advisory board began a process of examining every aspect of how the property runs, and what the vision for the future might look like. 

We have been going out to the community, we have been sharing everything with the public.  We have been bringing the policies and procedures current and consistent with Montana law, and we have been exploring many different options and ideas.  One aspect of that conversation was what type of management did we want going forward?  It has been managed by a governing board, and recently by the Board of County Commissioners. 

MetraPark is an enterprise department of Yellowstone County, and so it has a separate mission than departments like Road and Bridge.  They have the potential to generate funds, and excel at providing services beyond just what is generated in taxes and fees.  What we are doing right now is simply exploring what all the options are, and who can best provide that professional and productive path forward. 

Everyone agrees that things must change, and as we move forward. Accountability and productivity as well as return on investment must be part of that discussion as well as legacy groups and their contributions to our community. 

All of the members of the board agreed that we must move forward in asking these questions, seeking answers, and keeping the best interests of the property owners, ie, the tax payers as a priority. 

That is the commitment we have made, and now, openly and transparently, we are asking a lot of questions, and seeking as much advice as possible.  From there, we will make decisions about the future of the entire campus, and then put before the voters a cost of construction if they want to invest in additional development of the property.  It is an exciting time for Yellowstone County, and the future of MetraPark.   Ask questions, listen to what we are learning, point out concerns, tell us what you like and don’t like, and stay active in the process. Together we will make this project a premier facility that will serve everyone for generations to come.

Denis Pitman

Yellowstone County Commissioner

Watch for changes in RMDs

By Michael Vondra

If you’re a certain age, you’ll need to withdraw money from some of your retirement accounts each year. But in 2022, the amount you must take out may be changing more than in other years – and that could affect your retirement income strategy.

      Here’s some background: Once you turn 72, you generally must start taking withdrawals, called required minimum distributions, or RMDs, from some of your retirement accounts, such as your traditional IRA and your 401(k) or similar employer-sponsored plan. Each year, your RMDs are determined by your age and account balances. This year, the life expectancy tables used by the IRSare being updated to reflect longer lifespans. This may result in lower annual RMDsthan you’d have to take if this adjustment hadn’t been made.

      If you’ve started taking RMDs, what does this change mean to you? It can be a positive development, for a few reasons:

      • Potentially lower taxes – Your RMDs are generally taxable at your personal income tax rate, so the lower your RMDs, the lower your tax bill might be.

      • Possibly longer “lifespan” for retirement accounts – Because your RMDs will be lower, the accounts from which they’re issued – including your traditional IRA and 401(k) – may be able to last longer without becoming depleted. The longer these accounts can stay intact and remain an asset, the better for you.

      • More flexibility in planning for retirement income – The word “required” in the phrase “required minimum distributions” means exactly what it sounds like – you must take at least that amount. If you withdraw less than your RMD, the amount not withdrawn will be taxed at 50%. So, in one sense, your RMDs take away some of your freedom in managing your retirement income. But now, with the lower RMDs in place, you may regain some of this flexibility. (And keep in mind that you’re always free to withdraw more than the RMDs.)

      Of course, if you don’t really need all the money from RMDs, even the lower amount may be an issue for you – as mentioned above, RMDs are generally taxable. However, if you’re 70½ or older, you can transfer up to $100,000 per year from a traditional IRA directly to a qualified charitable organization, and some, or perhaps all, of this money may come from your RMDs. By making this move, you can exclude the RMDs from your taxable income. Before taking this action, though, you’ll want to consult with your tax advisor.

Here are a couple of final points to keep in mind. First, not all your retirement accounts are subject to RMDs – you cangenerally keep your Roth IRA intact for as long as you want. However, your Roth 401(k) is generally subject to RMDs.If you’re still working past 72, though, you may be able to avoid taking RMDs from your current employer’s 401(k) or similar plan, though you’ll still have to take them from your traditional IRA.

Changes to the RMD rules don’t happen too often. By being aware of how these new, lower RMDs can benefit you, and becoming familiar with all aspects of RMDs, you may be able to strengthen your overall retirement income situation.

Michael A Vondra

Certified Financial Planner Practitioner

Edward Jones

Big Sky Economic Development’s (BSED) workforce development program, BillingsWorks will be implementing the Summer Jobs Program in Yellowstone County this upcoming summer. The Yellowstone County Summer Jobs Program matches participants with a job or paid internship, provides a paid foundational work skills training, and connects students with an adult mentor for the summer. SJP participants are high school students and recent graduates eager to develop their work skills and explore their career options. Participating area businesses (in all industries) and community organizations help strengthen the local economy by connecting youth to meaningful work experiences.

“We are excited to support our partners in Yellowstone County as they implement the Summer Jobs Program. We have seen success with this community-driven program in Helena, and we are eager to expand the program so more youth can access earn-and-learn opportunities,” Gabrielle Ekund Rowley, Executive Director of American Jobs for America’s Youth Montana.

Through the program, students gain skills, experience, and professional networks that prepare them for success in future endeavors. The work skills our students learn and practice serve them well both in and out of the workforce.

Bo Bruinsma, Career Outreach Director at School District Two stated, “Billings Public Schools is excited our students will have the opportunity to participate in the Yellowstone County Summer Jobs Program. Students will have the opportunity to be introduced to careers and industries they are interested in, gain valuable employability skills and experience, and network with professionals in our community. We’re confident this program can help students make more informed decisions about their future and show them all the great career opportunities available here in Yellowstone County.”

“BillingsWorks is proud to have the opportunity to collaborate with community partners to implement the SJP here in Yellowstone County in efforts to address local workforce challenges and expose students to potential career pathways.”- Marcell Bruski, Director of Marketing & BillingsWorks

The execution of this effort will be done in conjunction with the Yellowstone County Summer Jobs Program (SJP) Committee made up of BSED, the Billings Chamber of Commerce, School District 2, Reach Higher Montana, City College at MSUB, Billings Association of Realtors and with the support of American Jobs for American Youth (AJAY) Montana. The goal of this pilot year is to serve at least 30 Yellowstone County youth (ages 16-19), matching them with local employers and local mentors.

From Northern Ag Network

Recently, the effort regarding the reintroduction of wolves in Colorado has generated national attention and has started a conversation between Montana producers recalling our state’s own reintroduction over two decades ago and the significant impacts that came with it. This month, leaders from Montana Stockgrowers Association (MSGA) discussed this issue and the challenges Colorado livestock producers will face as wolves continue to be reintroduced to their state.

MSGA’s Board of directors decided to be proactive on this issue and state the Association’s opposition to using Montana wolves in the reintroduction in Colorado.

In a letter sent to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks (FWP), MSGA shared concerns for Colorado livestock producers who have no available tools in place to allow for the protections and programs for their livestock that Montana producers currently have.

“Giving Colorado wolves from Montana isn’t going to solve the wolf issues in our state, but it will significantly impact livestock producers in Colorado,” said Jim Steinbeisser, MSGA President. “MSGA represents ranching families throughout the state, and we have experienced first-hand the impacts this apex predator has on our family ranches.”

From the initial reintroduction into the state, Montana has continued to put in place, through policy and legislation, management tools for the livestock industry to help protect livestock. While producers still face significant predation from wolf activity, there are measures in place to lessen those losses.

It is critically important livestock producers do not shoulder the burden and costs of these types of reintroduction efforts, especially with no management tools in place to protect their property, livelihoods, and resources ranchers so carefully manage.

For these reasons, the MSGA Board of Directors is in strong opposition to Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks considering any request from the state of Colorado to provide Montana wolves for reintroduction into Colorado.

Governor Greg Gianforte has announced Montana entrepreneurs have a new tool to grow their businesses. Approved by the governor in December, the Montana Down Payment Assistance Program is a public-private partnership between the State of Montana and Montana’s banks, credit unions, and economic development agencies. 

 “Montana entrepreneurs and job creators now have another tool in their toolbox to invest and grow their business, create more good-paying jobs, and meet increasing consumer demands,” Gov. Gianforte said. “I appreciate the private sector leaders who are partnering with the state in this first of its kind program.” 

 The Montana Down Payment Assistance Program will help finance the acquisition of equipment, purchase of real estate or buildings with improvements, and new construction for existing Montana businesses. Loans have a low fixed interest rate for ten years and range in size from $250,000 to $3,000,000. 

 The Governor’s Office of Budget and Program Planning and the Montana Board of Investments developed the program and presented the proposal to the ARPA Economic Transformation and Stabilization and Workforce Development Advisory Commission in December. With the commission’s unanimous, bipartisan recommendation, Gov. Gianforte allocated $37 million for the program to the Montana Board of Investments. 

Program details are available at https:// Loan-Programs/ Programs-

A historic number of small businesses are struggling to increase their workforce, according to National Federation of Independent Business’s (NFIB) monthly jobs report. A net 50 percent of small business owners reported raising compensation, up two points from December and a 48-year record high reading. A net 27% plan to raise compensation in the next three months, down five points from December.

“Small business owners are managing the reality that the number of job openings exceeds the number of unemployed workers, producing a tight labor market and adding pressure on wage levels,” said NFIB Chief Economist Bill Dunkelberg. “Reports of owners raising compensation continues at record-high levels to attract applicants to their open positions.”

Twenty-three percent of owners said that labor quality was their top business problem, down two points from December. Eleven percent of owners cited labor costs as their top business problem. Reports of labor costs as the top business problem are at 48-year record high levels, just two points below December’s record-breaking 13%.

Forty-seven percent of owners (seasonally adjusted) reported job openings they could not fill in the current period, down two points from December. The number of unfilled job openings still far exceeds the 48-year historical average of 23%.

Small business owners’ plans to fill open positions remain at record high levels, with a seasonally adjusted net 26% planning to create new jobs in the next three months, down two points from December but only six points below the highest reading in the 48-year history of the survey set in August 2021.

Overall, 59% of small employers reported hiring or trying to hire in January, down one point from December. Ninety-three percent of those hiring or trying to hire reported few or no qualified applicants for the positions they were trying to fill. Twenty-nine percent of owners reported few qualified applicants for their open positions and 26% reported none.

Thirty-six percent of owners have openings for skilled workers and 22% have openings for unskilled labor. Forty-four percent of the job openings in construction are for skilled workers. Sixty-four percent of construction firms reported few or no qualified applicants, one of the tightest domestic labor markets.

The Northern International Livestock Exposition (NILE) is accepting application for the next General Manager.  Applications will be accepted until March 24; followed by the interview process. The goal of the NILE Board of Directors is to interview, select and hire the next General Manager on or before June 1.

The responsibilities of the position will be to oversee the general business and management activities of the NILE organization, including the events of NILE Stock Show and Rodeo, Professional Bull Riders event, Montana Agri-Trade Exposition, and various other NILE events.  For more information go to: https:// www. p/about/jobs

From the Northern Ag Network

A North Dakota farm filed a class-action lawsuit last week, alleging John Deere is violating the Sherman Act in not making diagnostic software available to farmers who want to repair their own equipment.

The lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Northern Illinois alleges John Deere has monopolized the repair service market for John Deere brand agricultural equipment with onboard central computers known as engine control units, or ECUs.

Forest River Farms in Forest River, North Dakota, asked for a trial by jury and wants the court to order John Deere to make the necessary software available to individual farmers and repair shops.

In addition, the lawsuit seeks damages for farmers who have paid for repairs from John Deere dealers beginning on Jan. 12, 2018, to the present.

The right to repair increasingly has become an issue in agriculture and other industries with state legislatures introducing bills in at least 32 states, including bills in 21 states in 2021.

“Farmers have traditionally had the ability to repair and maintain their own tractors as needed, or else have had the option to bring their tractors to an independent mechanic,” the lawsuit reads. “However, in newer generations of its agricultural equipment, Deere has deliberately monopolized the market for repair and maintenance services of its agricultural equipment with ECUs by making crucial software and repair tools inaccessible to farmers and independent repair shops.”

In addition, the lawsuit alleges Deere’s network of “highly consolidated independent dealerships” is “not permitted through their agreements” with Deere to provide farmers or repair shops “with access to the same software and repair tools the dealerships have.

“As a result of shutting out farmers and independent repair shops from accessing the necessary resources for repairs, Deere and the dealerships have cornered the Deere repair services market in the United States for Deere-branded agricultural equipment controlled by ECUs and have derived supracompetitive profits from the sale of repair and maintenance services.”

The lawsuit alleges John Deere has “deliberately” made software unavailable to individual equipment owners and independent repair shops.

“Historically, farmers who owned Deere tractors have had the option of repairing their tractors themselves or taking them to an independent repair shop of their choosing,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit said farmers report their tractors shutting down from computer faults. This requires producers to wait for John Deere technicians to arrive on-farm “while they lose valuable time, which can lead to expensive crop losses. Without the firmware, the product is incomplete and will not run, making the firmware as vital a part to the basic functioning of a tractor as a steering wheel or an engine,” the lawsuit said.

“According to a report from a U.S. Public Interest Research Group, the John Deere S760 combine harvester has 125 different computer sensors in it. If any one of those sensors throw an error code, the combine will enter limp mode.”

As of 2021, the lawsuit said, farmers pay between $150 to $180 per hour for Deere repair services from an authorized dealer.

In September 2018, the Equipment Dealers Association, a trade and lobbying group that represents John Deere and other manufacturers, committed to make repair tools, software and diagnostics available to the public by Jan. 1, 2021.

Montana State University Billings City College students in the automobile collision repair and refinishing technology program recently finished painting a van for a local church. The vehicle was presented to members of the congregation on December 13. 

Instructor Steven Wodrich was approached by John Farnes, pastor at Family Church in Laurel, about this project. Refinishing the van’s exterior would give Wodrich’s students hands-on experience and provide a great service to the church, as they did not charge for any of their work.

In the auto body lab, the students disassembled the van and sanded it down. They removed dents from the body of the vehicle before priming for the new paint. The bumpers, running boards, and wheels were all also refinished by the students during the month-long project.

Thanks to donations from Denny Menholt Chevrolet and American Auto Body toward paint, the auto body students were able to refinish the vehicle’s exterior at no additional cost. U-Pol Products also donated supplies toward the exterior changes on the vehicle. Clearview Auto Glass donated a new windshield and Northland Auto and Truck donated mud guards. As the students had not worked on custom paint jobs yet, Auto Trim Design donated their time to add the church’s logo to its exterior.

“This has been a good learning experience for our students,” says Wodrich. “It’s also given them the opportunity to give back to the community and support a local church that works hard to help those in need.”

This spring, students will take part in the third Recycled Ride project, where they will take in a wrecked vehicle, fix the damages with donated parts and materials, and present it to a local family in need. This project will be completed in April of 2022.

An old joke tells of an economist, a chemist, and a physicist who are stranded on a desert island with nothing to eat except a can of beans they cannot open. When the chemist and physicist fail to devise workable solutions, the economist says, “Assume we have a can opener.”