By Evelyn Pyburn

Some many years ago, a school board in the area had been meeting, since forever, in closed sessions with no media ever covering them. The first time a reporter showed up they were shocked – shocked that what they did, said and decided was something the public should know about. It took them awhile, but they got used to it.

It’s been decades ago now, when I attended my first meeting of the MetraPark Advisory Board and found that there, too, was very strong resistance to open meetings. Meetings were “posted” by tacking an agenda up across the hall from the manager’s office. No financial information was available. In order to keep from disclosing what was being talked about the agenda items were numbered on a sheet of paper which the manager then passed out only to board members. When the board voted on something it was identified only as Item No. 6 or whatever number it was.

I was once directly asked to leave. Another time the meeting was held as a barbecue in the backyard yard of one board member with no invitation to the media, specifically to avoid the media.

When the lack of transparency was brought up to the county commissioners at the time, I was told “We don’t micromanage.”

I heard a story about how another public board didn’t want a reporter present and they ended their meeting, with the intent of moving it to a restaurant, only to be followed by a Gazette reporter, who continued for the rest of the evening following them from location to location.

Then there was the time that the president of a public board, called for a break in the meeting, and one by one the board members stepped out in the hallway to confer about something they didn’t want to talk about openly.

A similar gambit now, with current technology, is to hold what essentially amounts to a meeting by contacting each board member individually. While that can be legal, so long as it is “noticed” and the text or email  data is made public, if it is done to avoid being public it is illegal under Montana law.

Still another public body decided they could side- step open meetings by creating a secondary “private” non-profit organization. Then they got a local attorney to declare that as such it was not required to abide by the state’s open meeting and public information laws. That legal opinion was called “hogwash” by a much better lawyer, who pointed out that Montana law says that if an entity takes so much as $1 of taxpayer funds they must abide by open meeting laws. And, of course, they were using taxpayer funds. Not letting the public know how they were spending the money was the whole point of it all.

More recently, the leader of a gathering of public officials speculating about solutions to a problem refused to tell the Yellowstone County News the details. Fortunately another member of the group was much more forthright and provided the information.

For all those who want to conduct business in the dark, there are, indeed, public servants of greater caliber who are forthright and want daylight shone upon their activities. So it is quite often that media is made aware of situations by those who understand and respect the public they are serving.

Among all the board members, years ago, at MetraPark, who should have known better and should have stood up for the law, there were a couple who were exemplary – and one poor guy brought the wrath of the group down upon himself by attempting to get his cohorts to comply with the law.  He is an individual to be admired.

In another case, I felt I had my own “deep throat” because of periodic phone calls I got from a woman who refused to identify herself.

There was only one incident, however, in which I witnessed a board member stand up and declare that he was leaving if they were going to close a meeting to discuss a subject that should have been public.

It is surprising to see how frequent, persistent and creative some citizen representatives are when trying to circumvent the public’s right to know. Why they do it is a baffling mystery.

While I used to get quite anxious about it, I don’t anymore because I learned that sooner or later, whatever they are trying to hide comes out  — at least if the media is playing its role – and however bad they thought it might be, when it finally does come out, it is ten times worse than if they had just dealt with it honestly.

If you serve on a public body or hold a public office, and you and others are trying to manipulate the minutia of law to hold a meeting so that the public or media are not in “the know” —  STOP! STOP! STOP!

Or maybe you are sending emails between meetings, or making phone calls, or passing notes under the table. Again, STOP IT! Stop and resign your position immediately, because if you are not there to serve the public – to be a liaison for those you are trying to deceive – then you have no business holding such a position.

There is nothing – absolutely nothing — that you should know about that should not be public knowledge (except the very, very limited provisions for personnel privacy allowed for by law and even that does not provide as much cover as many like to extend.)

The primary purpose of whatever role you serve in government is to provide honest and open government – one which every citizen can trust. It is an excruciatingly important role and to violate your pledge to do so is contemptable.

Government cannot be corrupt if the full light of day shines upon its actions and media reports it. Even if, at one moment in time, it seems a greater good would be served by keeping something secret that seldom if ever proves to be the case. If you can handle the truth, so can your neighbors. Trust to citizens to ultimately make the right decisions – they are who you serve – all of them, not some favored few.

Getting your way, “by hook or by crook,” is the method and mentality of tyrants and power mongers who never serve the greater good. A peaceful, civilized and free society withstands mistakes or poor decisions far, far better than they do the dictatorial powers of those who perceive themselves to be superior and invincible.

ExxonMobil  has sold its 63,000 bpd Billings Refinery to Par Pacific Holdings, Inc. in a $310 million sale that included associated marketing and logistics assets from ExxonMobil Corporation and two of its subsidiaries.

The sale includes Exxon- and Mobil-branded service stations network, supplied through long-term brand agreements. ExxonMobil has operated the refinery since 1949 and currently employs 300 people. 

The deal is expected to close in the second quarter of 2023.

Par Pacific Holdings, Inc. headquartered in Houston, Texas, owns and operates energy, infrastructure, and retail businesses. 

A Par Pacific spokesman said that they are looking at renewable fuel opportunities to supplement the refinery’s conventional fuel production and utilize its existing market position in Washington to reduce the carbon intensity of its fuel sales in accordance with the recently enacted Washington low-carbon fuel standard.

ExxonMobil’s president of Product Solutions, Karen McKee, explained that Exxon is focused on investing in facilities “where we can manufacture higher-value products such as lubricants and chemicals.”

Par Pacific’s strategy is to acquire and develop businesses in logistically complex, niche markets. “This acquisition will significantly enhance our scale and geographic diversification and underpins our focus on pursing strategic growth initiatives,” said William Pate, President and Chief Executive Officer of Par Pacific. “We look forward to welcoming the dedicated and highly skilled Billings employees to our team. This acquisition expands our fully integrated downstream network in the western United States.”

Par Pacific expects to fund the acquisition with cash on hand and availability under existing credit facilities, based on liquidity of approximately $495 million on September 30, 2022. Hydrocarbon inventory is expected to be financed by a new working capital facility. The transaction is expected to immediately begin adding to Adjusted Net Income and Free Cash Flow per share.

The 63,000 bpd Billings refinery is a high-conversion, complex refinery, which processes low-cost Western Canadian and regional Rocky Mountain crude oil grades. Par Pacific is evaluating renewable fuels opportunities to supplement the refinery’s conventional fuel production and utilize its existing market position in Washington to reduce the carbon intensity of its fuel sales in accordance with the recently enacted Washington low-carbon fuel standard.

In addition to the refining assets, the transaction includes a 65% interest in an adjacent cogeneration facility and an expansive PADD IV & V marketing and logistics network. The logistics assets include the wholly-owned 70-mile, 55,000 bpd Silvertip Pipeline, a 40% interest in the 750-mile, 65,000 bpd Yellowstone refined products pipeline, and seven refined product terminals. Total storage capacity across the refinery and logistics locations totals 4.1 MMbbls. The acquisition also includes a long-term ExxonMobil-branded fuels marketing arrangement to supply approximately 300 retail locations.

Par Pacific owns and operates 61,000 bpd of combined refining capacity, related multimodal logistics systems, and 29 retail locations.  Par Pacific owns one of the largest energy networks in Hawaii. In the Pacific Northwest and the Rockies, Par Pacific owns and operates 29 retail locations as well as 46-percent of Laramie Energy, LLC.

By Evelyn Pyburn

One of the first experiences of having launched a new business, 40 years ago, was a requirement to annually fill out a form for the county tax collector, listing all the equipment and furniture that was part of our business. The purpose was to pay “personal property taxes,” now commonly called “business equipment tax,” but originally,  most everyone had to pay a tax on their furnishings, whether they were in business or not.

Filling out the form was simple because we didn’t have much – a used desk, a couple chairs, and two new file cabinets.

Not having much capital to start a business, we were creative in making do with what we could find. Bear in mind that this was before computers, so layout and design was a matter of physically piecing things together. Ideally, a light table would have been nice, but we couldn’t afford that. Our solution for a large layout surface was to use an old flat door supported by the two cardboard boxes in which our new file cabinets came.

As a new business we couldn’t afford the equipment we needed but state and county governments expected us to pay taxes on everything we did have. And, no, we were not small enough to be exempt – no one was exempt.

Some time after submitting our tax form I got a call from the county tax office, a woman who wanted to go over our statement. She asked at one point if there was anything I hadn’t written down. I then mentioned our flat door and cardboard boxes, which perturbed her, and I don’t think she believed me. She became quite indignant, and said, “What about your printing press?”

I was dumbfounded and had to laugh. No small newspaper owned a printing press any more, I told her. They send their layouts to a central printing company, which — even today— prints most of the newspapers for a large region.

For her to have taken it upon herself to challenge a business about what equipment they had, one might have expected her to take it upon herself to become educated about what such a business did and what they might actually have for equipment.

But she was, and still is, not alone in not being educated about what it takes to start a business – the fact that the state has such a tax at all speaks to the fact that many people are equally as uneducated; but not knowing what they are doing has never given them pause.

A business equipment tax is directly aimed at killing the goose that lays the golden egg, and for a long, long time Montana has been beating that goose to death. While lessened to some extent, the tax still remains as a barrier to greater prosperity for Montana.

I recall hearing a comment at a manufacturers’ convention a number of years ago from a new manufacturer who had come to the state to manufacture pasta. He expressed deep disappointment that no one had told his company about the business equipment tax. He didn’t know about it, he said, until he opened the mail one day, which included an envelope with the form to be filled out. He then made the point that they would not have located in Montana had they known about the business equipment tax. He didn’t know about the tax because he had never heard of a state imposing such a tax.

Another speaker at another meeting, who was a national specialist at saving a struggling business from going bankrupt, also expressed astonishment at having discovered that Montana had such a tax. Having to pay the tax, whether making a profit or not, essentially spelled doom for any marginal business with lots of expensive equipment.

Business equipment taxes are hostile to economic development – to growing an economy – to creating new wealth. What kind of state does that?  Montana does that and it will probably continue even though there will undoubtedly be efforts to try to raise the exemption level during the next state legislature.

Over time, some improvement has been made in reducing the tax, but it has been an uphill battle.

Common sense says the tax should be completely eliminated, except for people who don’t know what they are doing. They are willing to “welcome” businesses who want to invest up to $300,000 in the state, but they most aggressively want to penalize anyone investing more. Is it any wonder that manufacturing enterprises that want to be close to the development of energy, almost always chose to locate on the eastern side of the state border at Williston?

How can anyone not know that business development and growth is the source of all taxes, most jobs and all new wealth? Every dollar left in a business will do much more for a community than any dollar transferred to government, no matter how it’s spent by government.

One of the things we all should have been able to see over the past couple of years in Montana is what happens to tax collections of all kinds when there are more businesses – businesses that are making a profit. Montana has a gargantuan surplus in tax revenues — the largest in history, because our economy– our businesses — are thriving. While there are other factors at play, none would make such a difference if it weren’t for thriving businesses in Montana. The past couple of years have clearly demonstrated for all to see what it takes to really generate the revenues that people want for government – strong, profitable businesses.

Gov. Gianforte announced that raising the $300,000 exemption level is one of his priorities for the next session of the state legislature. The news reports make sure that everyone knows that it is Republicans, not Democrats, who want to do that as though it is a terrible thing. It is quite amusing, since it seems to say that Democrats are opposed to business investment in the state. Opposed to having a strong economy. Opposed to generating new wealth. Opposed to having tax revenue surpluses. One would think there would be Democrats who would object – and maybe they are. Maybe that’s why the party had trouble fielding candidates in the coming election.

After getting its feet on the ground and having had a couple years to organize, Substance Abuse Connect (SAC), is reporting to the community its success and impact as an oversight agency that facilitates communication, organization and collaboration among the law enforcement, health care agencies and schools in the county that deal with people struggling through drug addiction and mental health issues.

Behavioral health has in the past emerged as the community’s  No. 1  health problem, and it will again, proclaims SAC.

Several of the community leaders who serve on its Board spoke about its achievements over the past year at a recent press conference.  County Commissioner Don Jones commented that “SAC has been doing a great job.” The program is helping the county to know how effectively the county’s $1.2 million mill levy is being spent and how it is impacting the community and the jail. A primary purpose of the mill levy was to reduce recidivism in the jail. “It is important to have the data,” said Jones, “This is the first report and they will continue to build on that report.”

The county contributes part of the mill levy revenues to help support SAC. A SAC written report states, “Our financial investment in the backbone of Substance Abuse Connect has yielded us a 20x return on our investment and resulted in multiple successful pilot projects that have decreased re-arrests and moved frequent utilizers of behavioral health services to stability.”

SAC’s efforts include education campaigns, revamping the behavioral health crisis system, establishment of a Crisis Line (988), a Mobile Crisis Response Team, treatment for jail inmates.

Police Chief Rich St. John talked about the Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) saying it has had a great impact on the number of homeless people in Billings. Team members ride with officers so that when they encounter a situation in which a homeless person is in need of assistance they can hand them off to the team which can direct the individual to the appropriate needed services.

St. John said that 170 clients have been assisted by HOT of which 71 percent have received recovery housing. “That was not happening a year ago,” he said.

The Community Crisis Prevention has helped decrease administrative time at the jail and at the hospital and for the criminal justice system, and over 1000 cases have been diverted from jail.

Tracy Neary, Vice President Human Resources & Mission Integration at St. Vincent Healthcare, explained that they have been able to give behavioral support for clients in a more timely way, rather than having to struggle to provide care in an emergency situation in which people “too often end up in a critical health situation.”

The call center mobile crisis unit provides support when crisis stabilization is needed. She said they have diverted 2300 people from hospitalization and into more appropriate care.

School District 2 Superintendent Greg Upham said that the issues that Substance Abuse Connect deals with “is not a police issue but a community issue.” It’s not necessary to stay in situations the community currently finds itself, said Upham, adding, “We have to say it out loud, we are in a war.” He said that in his 36 years in education he has never seen such “normalization of being altered.” “There is always a pressure to be like someone else….a middle schooler trying to say ‘no’ – they need our support. We have to continue to do what we are doing. We need to do a better job.” He said that he believes that parents and grandparents, etc. do not fully appreciate the impacts of social media on youngsters.

Another spokesperson said that Substance Abuse Connect is important “but it is going to take the whole community.”

SAC has helped facilitate a community wide education program among youth, parents, coaches, and medical providers, to raise awareness about increased opioid addition. It’s involved a social media campaign with RiverStone Health that highlights protective factors and heathy alternatives to alcohol and drug use.

SAC organized a live Facebook virtual “ask a therapist” program in partnership with Suicide Prevention Coalition, RiverStone, Billings School District and the Mental Health Center through which, in three events, they reached 227 attendees.

Another similar partnership established the School Based and Clinical Program, which also focused on the classroom and children.

Still, another program aimed at expectant and new parents, called Healthy Spark, in collaboration with St. Vincent Healthcare, Midwifery Clinic, RiverStone Health, Rimrock and GOMO Health, provides informational resources and support connections and has had 282 enrollees.

A program aimed at providing probationer and parole clients with behavioral health support that reduces recidivism at the jail has resulted in no re-arrests for 81 percent of the 160 individuals referred to the program, and 20 percent reduction in unemployment. More than half of the clients had primary addiction to meth.

Another drug-related re-arrest reduction program, Recovery Pathways had 362 enrollments also increased employment and decreased re-arrests.

The City of Billings and Yellowstone County are scrutinizing a proposed lending option for businesses which many believe would be a boost to economic development. Called C-Pace, the program would allow businesses to borrow money from lenders and make repayment as a part of their property tax bill. The loan would be attached to the property rather than the borrower – something like a lien.

Overseeing the program is a Great Falls-based non-profit organization connected to the Montana Department of Commerce called the Montana Facility Finance Authority (MFFA). MFFA has traditionally specialized in serving the medical care industry to finance energy and water-saving measures in the process of remodeling or building new buildings. MFFA aids companies in processing taxes, loans and grants for health care.

MFFA wants to extend their services to other businesses and to utilize the property tax collection system to facilitate repayment of the loans. MFFA would serve as the facilitator that handles the disbursement of the money collected through tax bills to the appropriate financial institution or bank. Delinquencies would be dealt with as part of the total tax bill and in the same way as delinquent taxes.

Implementing C-Pace would necessitate a hearing process and approval of a resolution by county commissioners, but before moving forward the county commissioners are asking their legal advisors to check the fine print to make sure that the county can in no way be held responsible for any defaults.

City of Billings officials are interested in the concept, but are waiting to see if the county moves forward in adopting the program, since the city would be part of any county-wide application.

County Treasurer Sherry Long expressed concern about the idea and has a lot of questions that she believes must be answered before the county adopts it.

During a discussion meeting, a number of people spoke about the potential economic development benefits and encouraged county commissioners to join seven other counties that have already adopted the financing option. They urged the county commissioners to act quickly since there are projects already pending, they said.

By Evelyn Pyburn

“It’s such a great expression of freedom,” said Sen. Steve Daines about the Freedom Convoy that remains in Washington DC in protest of government mandates. Sen. Daines made the remarks while visiting with a Montana trucker, Dennis Davies, who drove from Helena to Washington, D.C. as part of the convoy that organized to protest the mask and vaccine mandates, as well as other federal edicts that are impacting their industry.

It’s been about three weeks since the convoy arrived in Washington DC and while they have daily drove about the city, they have prompted little news coverage, very much in keeping with the promise of some media to maintain a news blackout about the protestors. 

While the truckers have engaged some Congressmen, the news blackout seems to have mitigated much public pressure on the President and other politicians. The truckers have also made little public outreach for contributions and are running out of money, according to one of the organizers of the convoy, who predicted they can’t last longer than another week.

The convoy comprised of thousands of truckers from across the country remains ensconced, going on three weeks, on the DC Beltway.

One commentator declared the protest stalled, admitting that as far as news coverage goes “… this protest barely moved the needle.” He suggested it was poor timing because the Russian invasion of Ukraine captured headlines 24/7, but the fact is there were statements from media, long before the convoy even hit the road, that they intended not to report on it since ignoring the protestors was how President Biden said he intended to deal with them.

The convoy is headquartered at Hagerstown Speedway. They have mostly traveled on the Beltway and Interstate 395, seldom venturing into the city, although some drivers do occasionally drive through neighborhoods.

Police have in some cases closed exits from the interstate “to keep traffic moving smoothly.”

In support of the truckers, Sen. Daines said, “It’s time we stand for freedom and put an end to big government mandates that are unnecessarily straining our truck drivers, jobs and the economy.” Davies showed Sen. Daines the hundreds of signatures on his trailer he gathered from folks who have had enough of overreaching federal government. 

Sen. Daines has not been the only Congressman who has paid a visit to the convoy, many others such as Senators Ted Cruz and Ron Johnson, mostly Republicans, have visited the truckers, sending pictures and interviews back home so their constituents know they are supportive. But only local media provides most of the news available about the convoy. Even in Washington DC the primary reporting has only to do with monitoring traffic to avoid congestion caused by the big trucks. Otherwise, they aren’t there.

One DC reporter described the truckers’ arrival as “separated intermittently by the usual congested traffic, waved flags and blew their horns as they drove.”

Other reports from the convoy claim that the DC demonstration is “the first leg” of their protest, a second phase will involve touring small communities across middle American to rally for freedom and demonstrate that its support is no “fringe group.”

Some reports seem to demonize and trivialize the people involved to make them appear as a fringe minority group, even though there were millions of people who cheered the convoy along almost every mile of their way across the country. And, there remains many more who come to visit them daily in Washington DC, according to a non-supportive college professor on a website called “Think.”

Terry Bouton, an associate professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, declared the “People’s Convoy” a “frightening” success because in his view the truckers, their families and all their supporters are “far-right white supremacist” with anti-government ideas, organizations and personalities.

He sees the gathering as a threat, and describes it as… “a carnival-like atmosphere that drew thousands of people from the surrounding region. Entire families turned out to see the trucks and walk around the giant Speedway parking lot. There was free food and drinks, DJs, a band, quality fireworks, a ceremony with headlights and giant flags. Drivers let kids pull their horns, rev their engines and sign trucks with Sharpies. There was even funnel cake.

“The convoy’s entire journey has had a similar festive feel, drawing large crowds across the heartland. People flocked to overpasses to hold signs and wave as the convoys passed. Homeschooling mothers brought their kids as part of civics lessons. Convoy stops were often mobbed with visitors and were inundated with food and drink donations.

“Meanwhile, membership in dozens of public and private Convoy Facebook groups and Telegram channels has exploded. Convoy drivers upload reports, sometimes with videos shot as their trucks pass cheering crowds. Supporters post pictures and video taken from overpasses and roadsides along the route. Most people just write messages of support and thanks.”

As chilling as that description may sound to Mr. Bouton, law enforcement in the DC area have said that except for heavier traffic and occasional traffic jams, the demonstrators have been peaceful and have caused no problems.

Another report at “The Truth About Cars,” says, “…the Americans have remained mobile to avoid getting cornered by authorities. Stationed out of Hagerstown Speedway in Maryland, truckers have established a base of operations where they can service vehicles whenever they’re not on the Beltway protesting. Drone shots from above have indicated that there are usually a few hundred trucks parked at the racetrack each morning, though videos from inside show evening returns including hundreds more supportive passenger vehicles. While journeys into the city do take place, they typically involve a handful of trucks designed to make some noise before quickly retreating to avoid being penned in.”

“The Independent” reported that the convoy has dis-banned.

Anyone trying to keep informed about what is happening is encouraged to follow the live streaming of many of the truck drivers.

One AP reporter said that he asked a couple with Montana license plates why they had come to protest, they just answered “Freedom.”

And, indeed, while the issue of forced vaccinations was the impetus for the convoy, it’s an issue that has largely diminished as many restraints have been lifted. But, most of the demonstrators, when asked, will cite a long list of infringements on liberties that they want lifted.

A commentary in the Richmond Times-Dispatch called the demonstrators …”rebels without a cause, driving laps around the Capital Beltway is a metaphor for a nation spinning its wheels.”

According to Brian Brase, one of the convoy’s organizers “We’re going to keep looping the beltway until we’re heard.”

By Evelyn Pyburn

No. No. No.

In passing—while talking about engaging a private company to manage MetraPark, Commissioner Don Jones briefly pondered that maybe they should hire an administrator for county government.

It was just a quick remark and how serious he was is unclear, but the idea is a very bad one. Appointing  an administrator is sort of like appointing a dictator. Be assured there is a world of difference in the decisions that are made by someone who has to face re-election and someone who does not.

The justification usually made for a manager or administrator is to improve efficiency of government. Let me be clear – government is not meant to be efficient. Government is messy and slow to make changes. While government is commonly compared to business in the private sector, and the points of difference are usually valid, it doesn’t mean that government should be run like a business.  If you want efficiency, then start a business. Businesses can in most cases do all the things that government thinks it should do. Businesses just don’t like the unfair competition of government.

As is commonly heard said, the most efficient kind of government is a dictatorship. Efficient government does not deliver justice or representative democracy.

The dilemma faced by MetraPark is a very good example that public and private are two different things and never the twain should meet.

Even though MetraPark is a county-owned facility, MetraPark is not a government. It is actually more of a business that must be considered a governmental entity because it is subsidized by the taxpayers. Government “enterprises” like MetraPark exist in an impossible realm, neither one nor the other.

Having heard for years the arguments about whether MetraPark should be run as a public service or to pay for itself – the debate on either side is about equally balanced. Getting agreement about how it should be managed will never happen.

There is a very good reason that government and the private sector were meant to be separate arenas in this country.

For a public entity to make a profit is extremely difficult. It will always face questionable practices in terms of violating laws that govern public entities, and having to obey those laws will always impose extraneous costs that make being efficient and profitable impossible.

One is an organization dedicated to process and the other is focused on goals. Process is never-ending and complicated and unruly, the worst thing possible for business. A business is only interested in consensus to the degree to which it can please customers, and it doesn’t even have to please all customers, just enough to turn a profit and stay in business. For a business, process is laden with costs – to minimize process is what is called efficiency — and by law, government is not supposed to minimize process. It exists to facilitate process – and the point of that process in the US is supposed to allow for as much freedom as possible for each individual citizen – an administrator’s nightmare.

A public –private partnership is an oxymoron, and they never function as they are commonly represented. They don’t improve the efficiency of an operation and they don’t serve the public in terms of providing a product or service any better than a business or non-profit organization could – if there is a market demand for it (which is usually the rub). Their popularity stems from business people seeking a government handout funded by taxpayers, and by politicians seeking the power to pick winners and losers and to gain political influence from the private sector.

If you want to minimize due process then indeed a public administrator can do that – it is the very purpose of a public administrator to cut through and to minimize process – to clean up the messiness. Representative government is greatly diminished when issues get funneled through an administrator who has control of the information and a paid staff to advocate for one side of any issue, who controls the time line, and stands as a buffer for the elected body.

The effectiveness of elected representation is hugely neutered when the government is run by an administrator. More than one city council person over the years told me that as soon as they were elected they were told that they should not interact with the citizens – they should not serve as a representative – they were immediately neutered, as much as possible. They were told they should direct all complaints and information to the administrator and their staff. After all, so many different voices and conflicting ideas are messy and not efficient at all – an administrator minimizes such impacts.

With a public administrator leading the way decision making is always skewed to make things easier for “staff” and the bureaucracy. What a citizen wants is an irritant.

Who knows, a public administrator might view imposing an illegal sales tax for ten years as a good idea. Since they will never have to answer to the public in an election, there is no downside even if it isn’t such a good idea.

No, no, no. For the county to hire a public administrator is not a good idea. Let’s keep our inefficient and messy democracy.

Construction has started just above the Lockwood Interchange off Coburn Road in Lockwood for Montana’s first Camping World. Dirt and dust are flying on an 11.4 acre parcel that parallels Interstate 90 in preparation of building a new location for Camping World, touted to be “America’s largest retailer of RVs and related products and services.”

K2 Construction of Billings is in the process of preparing the property for the construction of a 32,280 square foot -building which will accommodate the sales, rentals and servicing of recreational vehicles. Stores also typically sell all the accessories, products and tools that support RVers.

The new store will join 185 Camping World locations in 40 states across the country and it will be the first in Montana. The website indicates that it will be completed by the end of 2022.

Camping World Holdings, Inc., is headquartered in Lincolnshire, IL. The company, headed by CEO, Marcus Lemonis, has been in business since 1966.

Also under the Camping World Holdings umbrella is the Good Sam organization the nation’s largest RV club, providing members with roadside service and trip planning and programs that “uniquely enables us to connect with our customers as stewards of the RV enthusiast community and the RV lifestyle.”

By Evelyn Pyburn

It’s working far beyond their greatest expectations.

Adaptive Performance Center (APC) at 1420 Broadwater in Billings was opened two years ago as a gym aimed at melding physical exercise with mental health, a magic elixir that its founders discovered works for military veterans. APC is available to help disabled veterans in overcoming their injuries, and for other veterans seeking a haven in dealing with the stress of everyday life, and for active military keeping in shape and wanting to enjoy the company of like-minded people.

APC started as a new idea with no guidelines or guarantees or members. It’s been a challenge in finding how to best operate the facility, determine policies and resolve problems as they have manifested themselves. Today the non-profit organization has almost 500 members and “we see magic happen every single day,” says co-founder Karen Pearson.

So successful has APC been that “it makes us feel we can’t open more gyms fast enough,” said Pearson and co-founder Mitch Crouse. Opening a second location is exactly their plan. Before the year is out they hope to have an APC gym in Helena. Everything is in place, except for closing on the property. They expect to be able to open within nine months after that.

Helena has the second highest population of veterans in Montana after Billings. Both communities’ population is 10 to 13 percent veterans. In Billings that’s about 13,000 people.

APC is the vision of Karen Pearson, a Licensed Professional Counselor and Clinical Certified Personal Trainer, and Mitch Crouse, a Certified Personal Trainer. In each of their experiences in providing physical training for people, who have had traumatic situations to deal with, they realized that physical exercise was hugely beneficial in that process. As Crouse frequently reiterates, “Move your body, heal your mind.”

Crouse learned that reality first-hand in struggling to recover from a severe injury he suffered in a car accident. Pearson recognized the connection in dealing with patients who were veterans trying to integrate back into families and adapt to regular life after serving in the military. She saw them struggle with PTSD and knew those, who believing there was no hope, committed suicide. Recognizing how greatis their challenge, she became dedicated to somehow find a way to help them – having a gym became the goal.

The effectiveness of APC is exceeding anything the duo ever imagined. “Every week we have people who achieve some physical or mental or personal goal,” says Pearson.

The gym is almost a “front” for helping the veterans get the support and connection with other veterans and military people that they need, explains Pearson. And, often it just happens, as they regularly attend to work out. The gym becomes a safe and comfortable place for them, where they find others who understand.

Pearson and Crouse relate about one day, not long after opening, that a Vietnam veteran came in and signed up, and then sat down in the general lobby area, which is furnished with inviting easy chairs and couches and coffee tables. A little later, a younger veteran of Desert Storm came in and joined him. And, shortly thereafter, there arrived a young woman currently serving in the National Guard, and she, too, sat down and joined in the conversation. The three of them talked for almost an hour as though they had always known each other. “They didn’t have to know each other,” said Pearson, “They all understood what they were talking.about”

Pearson and Crouse see things like that unfold all the time.

They enjoy their members and have discovered them to be “some of the most honest people….They are funny, knowledgeable, very smart and as strong as oxen, both physically and mentally, which is amazing considering the things they have to deal with or have seen,” enthused Pearson.

There are moments that Pearson’s experience as a mental health counselor is crucial. Every once in a while a client has a meltdown, and it is important to know how to handle such situations. Part of developing APC is in the experiences that occur and developing the protocols necessary, so that all the staff knows what to do. Besides Crouse and Pearson, APC employs two other supporters – Richard Shepard, manager; and Andrea Wright, Board President.

As they move into opening additional centers, it will be the experiences and practices that they learn at APC in Billings and the training and protocols they develop that they will introduce as standards of practice for all their centers.

They are being asked to locate centers in other areas of the state, but they hope their next expansion will be to locations outside Montana. People in Colorado Springs have an interest in opening an APC and so does another group in Hampton Roads, VA. Representatives from both locations have been to Billings to tour the APC facility.

Crouse said that in choosing the communities in which they will locate they will look at the capacity of the community to support a gym and the passion and commitment they see in the people involved.

Anyone who has their D2-14 discharge papers can join ACP. It doesn’t matter where or when or how they served, they simply have to have served. The cost is $19.95 a month, but no one is turned away because of inability to pay. In fact, APC has numerous individuals, businesses and organizations, who have will pay the dues of anyone who can’t afford to do so – people like The Breakfast Flakes and others who simply walk in the door, hand them a cash gift card and say “please use this to help pay somebody’s membership.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield has a standing community match offer. Other companies too match any donation their employees make.

Between 35 and 40 percent of their members depend on such contributions, and they are very appreciative. One veteran who had to depend on a “scholarship”, got himself on his feet and started a business and is now contributing to support the dues for others.

They also get other generous gifts which have allowed them to expand and add more equipment to the gym.

Their membership range in age from 17 to 88 years. The teenagers are recruits  who are “delayed entry candidates” for boot camp. The Air Force, the Army and the Marines have engaged APC to do physical training for the recruits while they are waiting to go to boot camp. Crouse says with obvious satisfaction, that they hear back from their trainees that boot camp is easy compared to the training at APC.

Not only have they found great support from the local offices of the military, but also the various service organizations that provide support for veterans have discovered that APC is good place through which to reach out to veterans.

Crouse said that they hope to establish a foundation for the center to cover its basic needs on an on-going basis. The biggest cost in opening a center is in getting it established. Getting a location, purchasing the equipment, etc.

After that the costs become less and remain steady.

During their “spare” time, Pearson and Crouse have been involved in helping in producing a documentary about the suicide rate among veterans. It focuses on showing civilians “how amazing our veterans really are.” It aims to help civilians understand what the veterans have seen and have experienced and how “gut wrenching” their memories are. But more importantly, the film explains what people can do to help. There is so much that people can do, said Pearson, and it can be done locally. The biggest problem is in finding the veterans who don’t know that there is help.

More details about the premier of the documentary will soon be available. Premiers will be held in several Montana communities including Billings.

Last week, two representatives of the real estate business approached Yellowstone County Commissioners about whether the county has vacant land that might be dedicated to addressing the affordable housing situation in Yellowstone County.

With most subdivision developments, state law requires that developers donate a portion of the project to the public for potential open space or park development. Most often those parcels are not developed and simply sit as vacant land. Two of Billings’ veteran real estate brokers, Tom Llewelyn and Bob Leach, are hoping that some of those dedicated parcels might be made available to become the basis of a community land trust (CLT).

Following a series of forums in which the Billings real estate industry scrutinized the housing crisis the community faces, CLTs emerged as a possible solution. “It’s one of the best tools we have,” said Llewelyn.

If we don’t get housing where people can afford it, we aren’t going to bring the 40,000 new workers to replace retiring babyboomers or workers at new businesses in the TEDD or hospital workers, said Llewelyn. A couple weeks ago Leach announced that in order to meet its housing needs, Billings and the surrounding area must build about 2000 living units (single family houses, condos, duplexes, etc.) a year.

Since the 1960s, CLT’s are increasingly being used to address housing affordability issues that plague many communities across the country.   They are currently operating in 31 states and the District of Columbia.

A CLT is the establishment of a private non-profit that holds land and preserves land affordability. While there are several examples of such trusts in the state there are none in Billings. There are CLTs in Missoula, Kalispell, Red Lodge, Bozeman and Big Sky, etc. Across the state there are about 200 CLT homes.

Llewelyn suggested that there may be some county-owned property that could be donated to a land trust  — “maybe in Shepherd or Huntley.” The city has a few similar parcels and so does Laurel, said Llewelyn, adding that they have also had discussions with the Department of Natural Resources (DNRC) about land in the area under that agency’s authority.  One unused DNRC property is near Castle Rock School. “It’s a good piece of land,” said Llewelyn, but it is sandstone and structures would have to be built on piers.

Any DNRC project and land donation would have to be approved by the Montana Land Board.

Commissioners had questions about how large a parcel must be and what a lease would look like. They pointed out that typically the land donated to the county by developers is not very conducive to development, which is why they chose to donate those parcels.

Llewelyn said that a parcel could be useable even if it would accommodate only five or six homes – “it doesn’t have to be 160 acres.” The lease would likely be able to be structured to meet whatever the county would like. Leases typically run for 60 or 70 years and some 99 years.

During one of the housing forums, it was explained that CLTs have proven to be a creative solution to keeping prices down for low to moderate income home buyers. It is an alternative to renting that allows the owners within a CLT to build equity toward independent home ownership and to be able to qualify for a loan.

In a CLT the house or buildings on a property are owned and traded separately from the land. The trust owns the land with the homeowner entering into a long-term land lease, varying from 75 to 99 years. Homeowners usually pay a monthly fee for amenities, a fee which is normally around $40 a month.

The ground lease makes sure the home is well maintained and preserves the community assets.

The homeowners own the home and earn limited equity. The arrangement reduces the purchase price of a home. Not having to pay for a lot that might cost between $75,000 to $100,000, quite obviously reduces the cost. The CLT serves well in many other capacities. It gives owners an opportunity to become educated about home ownership and learning about stewardship, while growing their wealth.

The owner can only sell to someone else whose income qualifies them to be able to purchase within the CLT – an income which is about 80 percent of the median income – about $61,000 in the Billings area. The CLT retains the right of first refusal in the sale, in order to buy back the property in case of default.

The legitimacy of property rights within a CLT have been verified through the courts and are accepted as sound investments by lenders. In fact, depending on how it is set up a CLT could reduce risk to a lender, making it all the more attractive as an investment.

The CLTs can be developed and established in numerous ways, with initial investment being acquired through the contribution of public land, donations from private organizations, grants, etc. They are administered by a stand-alone organization whose goal is to maintain the financial stability of the trust.