Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative (YVEC) had a really big year last year, having grown by 500 additional customers and adding to the utility’s infrastructure to keep ahead of such phenomenal growth. Such was the big news that crowned the annual membership meeting last week.

“The Energy to Thrive” was the theme of the 85th annual membership meeting at the Pavilion at Metra Park on March 26, which was attended by some 200-plus people.

Over the past ten years, YVEC has seen “tremendous growth,” said CEO/General manager Brandon Wittman. Revenues have increased $7 million, of which residential customers are 75 percent of sales.

But, said Wittman, “We are not about the bottom line. What makes us different is that we are focused on the members.”

Wittman mentioned frequently the company’s goal to be as efficient as possible in order to keep energy rates as low as possible for their members. The fact that they have not had to increase rates for 12 years speaks to the co-op’s success, but increasing inflation pushed them to have to raise rates 4 to 4.5 percent, last November.

But that is still less of an increase than the increase of 26.9 percent last year by their biggest competitor, pointed out Wittman. “We absorbed as much as we could for as long as we could,” he said, “We are still very competitive.”

YVEC’s last rate increase of 6 percent was in 2011.

The second largest electric cooperative in the state, YVEC now serves some 23,000 members, “and we try to be the energy solution for all of them,” said Wittman. For the past few years the co-op has averaged the addition of 350 meters /customers a year, and now they are averaging 500.

To keep ahead of that demand is the challenge before the staff and the board of directors. 

Board Secretary/Treasure, Scott Hofferber, who was unanimously re-elected to the board (trustee for district 3) during the meeting, told the membership, “You have a great board working for you.” His words were echoed by Vice President Dave Kelsey, who was also re-elected (trustee for district 6), who said, “We have an outstanding board, who has serious discussions about our power.” To keep the power going and to keep it affordable “is an ongoing battle,” he said, given the mandates and regulations that keep coming at energy providers.

Growth has required expansion and constant upkeep of the facilities. In 2023, YVEC purchased land near Park City to build a new substation to meet current and future needs. Billings and Worden substations were also upgraded to add capacity and new technology.

Additional office space was added to the operations center and additional land was purchased adjacent to the center for a new yard for storage and inventory.

“We build systems to work 30 years, not just today,” said Wittman.

With the continued growth YVEC has added new employees. For a decade the co-op averaged about 47 employees, last year they added several more to total 54 full time employees and two part-time. All of their employees were invited center stage to be introduced.

Providing their employees with the good equipment and current technology is part of the co-ops strategy to operate in the most efficient manner possible to keep costs and rates as low as possible. Wittman explained that there are 900 electric co-ops in the country and on average they serve 300 members per employee. YVEC serves 438 members per employee. “We are in the top five percent when it comes to this ratio,” he said.

YVEC invested $42.5 million into the plant over the past ten years.

Other members of the board of directors are: Larry Kaufman, President and trustee for district 4; Greg Neibauer, assistant secretary / treasurer and trustee for district 5; Bill Keller, trustee for district 1; Daniel Swartz, trustee for district 2; and Chris White, trustee for district 7.

YVEC was organized in 1937 and serves a 10,000 square mile territory including six counties. In its first year of operation it served 17 connected meters.

Total value of utility plant is $118,175,256. YVEC purchase 320,413,461 kilowatt hours of electricity in 2023.

The utility has 142,330 miles of high voltage transmission lines, and 2,678,456 mils of distribution lines.

The company paid $1,449,286 in property taxes in 2023.

2023 revenue was $39,549,604 and long term debt is $56,231,856.

Rudyard Kipling

Owning Yourself

By Evelyn Pyburn

Few quotations strike closer to home during the current era than this, especially as it pertains to speaking truth as we see it.

I understand the reasons. In my youth I used to feel quite intimidated at having to speak in a public setting of any sort. I doubt that I was unusual in that. But as with so many things in life, I learned that the more you do it the better you get at it and the more confident you become.

Speaking up when it is the right thing to do makes you feel better about yourself, even if you find out you are wrong in what you say – you learn something new and the world does not end. It’s a challenge that encourages being well informed and requires a lot of thought, so you know why you come to the decisions that you do.

So why should one find it necessary to speak up at times? Because untruths must be challenged. Truth must be recognized even when we don’t like it. Wrong information, deceit, or mistakes often harm others. One cannot build a civilized society on untruths, maintain peace or have justice with falsehoods, and falsehoods cannot stand if they are challenged by the truth. Also, whether in your personal life or in society in general, one cannot change or improve what hasn’t been accurately identified, and that requires adherence to truth.

What most people are afraid of in speaking out is “what will others think of you?” That thinking must surely come from us being social creatures and wanting to be part of the group. It’s why Rudyard Kipling calls it “hard business.” It is not easy to stand alone, and you often will have to stand alone, because human beings are very, very susceptible to “group think” – as cowardly as it might be, it feels safe.

But while you may worry what others may think, as Kipling also points out, what you think of you is far more important. After all, you have to live with you far longer than with anyone else. The more comfortable you are with yourself the more happy that life will be. Internal peace comes in knowing that you stand for what you believe is right and you have the strength to deal with truths and reality.

One of the funniest ironies of life has to be that when a person is worried about what someone else is thinking of them, the likelihood is, if they are thinking about you at all, they are wondering what you are thinking of them. And, the real truth is (which might be disappointing to discover) most people don’t think about you as much as you think they do. In the broader world, you just aren’t that important! So, you might as well be important in your own little corner of the world.

And, you might as well know why it is you believe the things you think you believe to be true. Far too many people simply adopt the opinions of those around them and never give them any deep thought. If they have confidence in those opinions it comes from believing “everyone else thinks this, so it must be right.” Seldom is that the case.

One of the keys in speaking your mind is to LISTEN to the responses. You will find new knowledge, no matter the response. One of the things I have come to realize in such discourses is that I learn more from people who disagree with me than from those who agree.Kipling also points out, not only might you have to stand alone but it might also be frightening — a factor that also has a great deal of relevance in today’s world. But one should understand the significance of the various kinds of push back you might encounter. When people have no reasonable argument in a debate of ideas their first point of refuge is name calling. It’s not only a short cut to having to think, but it often succeeds in intimidating those with the stronger arguments into silence, which for those who tend to believe in “might over right” is some kind of hallow victory.

Coerced censorship is an even greater admission of having lost the debate. The kind of censorship we have been witnessing by those who control social media and a President who establishes a bureau of censorship is to admit that they recognize themselves to be intellectually bankrupt, and any kind of victory they hope to attain requires silencing all intellectual discourse. But, most of all they are declaring that they very vehemently believe in “might over right.” They are in fact the reason that we must be brave enough and strong enough to speak truth when seeing its need, because their acts of coercion against innocent citizens demonstrate most clearly what is at stake: our very freedom, and the right to “own ourselves.”


The Montana Rural Water Systems has named the manager of Lockwood Water and Sewer District, Mike Ariztia, as “Manager of the Year.” That Ariztia should be recognized as the best manager in the state came as no surprise to people in Lockwood, who have been observing Ariztia’s outstanding achievements over the past nine years that he has served as the district’s manager.

The Lockwood community is fortunate to have Mike as our manager, said Carl Peters, President of the LWSD board of directors. The award was presented last week at the state annual meeting of the Montana Rural Water Systems in Great Falls.

Peters went on to say, “Mike is a thoughtful, fair minded, dedicate, and hardworking manager, with integrity and excellent communication skills and he has a great sense of humor toward his fellow LWSD co-workers, board members and customers, along with the District’s professional advisors and representatives from both state, federal and local governmental agencies.”

Ariztia came to Lockwood in 2015 to serve as manager and was immediately plunged into the $9 million Phase II of the Lockwood Sewer Project, which included 43,000 lineal feet of sewer main and over 600 services to property lines.

Ariztia has worked years with LWSD engineering consultants, Morrison Maierle, for planning and design decisions and with Nittany Grantworks on grant applications to help finance and build several major projects. Among those projects were:

—The $3.5 million upgrade to the Yellowstone River raw water intake in 2017-18 built a new pump station, replaced and added screens, increasing capacity and reliability;

—The $9 million Water Treatment Plant Upgrade completed in 2023, added UV disinfection, two additional filter/ clarifier trains for continued drinking water standards compliance, increased capacity, redundancy and reliability;

—The current $26 million Phase III Wastewater Project which will include 70,000 lineal feet of sewer line to nearly 800 residential properties and to larger undeveloped areas for future residential development;

—Other completed projects include a new “state of the art” dual bulk water station, and the installation of a major loop for the water system to provide a secondary feed to the system’s largest storage facility.

Ariztia is currently working with the Montana Department of Transportation on the redesigned I-90 Johnson Lane Interchange and the Billings Bypass for modifications to the LWSD water and sewer lines under Interstate 90 to a potentially large industrial area which will need water and sewer service.

Ariztia also works with Par Montana on their wastewater needs.

By Evelyn Pyburn

One of Billings’ most creative entrepreneurs, after selling one business, is well on his way to creating another.

Matthew McDonnell who transformed the family business in Billings into a leading edge business that attracted the attention of a national chain, is on his way to creating another leading edge company with huge potential. For a number of years McDonnell assumed the ownership and management of  Big Sky Collision, which was founded by his father. He transformed the business into a very modern, leading edge service company with several locations in Montana, which was purchased by Crash Champions. He has since launched another enterprise with even greater potential which will be headquartered in Billings, Montana — Collision Vision.

Collision Vision is an SAAS (stands for Software as a Service) company – a software platform that can do eight basic things for the industry, which will completely change how the collision repair business conducts business, said McDonnell.

As the manager of an auto collision repair shop, McDonnell became well acquainted with problems that impacted the business and the fragmented nature of the whole industry. After selling his business, McDonnell had time to really reflect upon the problems and realize the tremendous costs they impose as well as inefficiencies. He set about creating a new business by finding a way to solve those problems.

In the process, McDonnell acquired eight stockholders and people with the skills and expertise to establish a new company and develop a unique software program. The new technology happens to use AI, to facilitate a centralized point of information, accessible to everyone involved in a business, saving many, many hours that is commonly spent in trying to gather data to accomplish one task or another.

For example, a shop technician is faced with doing a unique repair on a vehicle for which he needs specific information. Because the industry is so “fragmented,” explained McDonnell, the technician could easily spend four hours or more to first figure out where to get the information and then how to apply it. Those hours are really “unbillable”. They become a cost that is essentially a loss to the shop.

The losses are even greater to OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) in the routine necessity of conducting audits on shops which are certified as being qualified to do repairs on specific kinds of vehicles. Not only does the OEM have to spend a lot of time gathering data but so does the shop in preparing for an audit – but with Collision Vision all that information is constantly gathered and maintained “in the Cloud” and readily available to a subscriber.

And even more – in compiling that data, Collision Vision can monitor the on-going acquisitions, training or advancements of a shop, and inform the owner about trends or significant opportunities they might not otherwise readily realize, such as the fact that they are near achieving the prerequisites to become certified for another kind of service.

The eight basic “niche offerings” in the new platform are asset management, third party vendor management, shop certification audit, OEM management, repair audit, shop employee training scheduler, employee platform, and a unique parts rebate program from which savings can more than pay for the cost of the platform.

Collision Vision is a “win, win, win” for everybody, said McDonnell. The industry has been asking for this kind of tool,” he said. His biggest head scratcher is wondering why it has taken so long for someone to come up with a solution. Collision Vision isn’t all that complicated, but its holistic nature in addressing so many problems makes it unique.

It doesn’t take much explanation about what it can do to generate excitement for people involved in the various aspects of the industry – from shop owners to OEMs, from vendors and suppliers, to paint and tool companies – they all instantly “get it” and readily recognize its potential in being able to make numerous kinds of jobs easier and save lots of money – really lots of money.

The fledgling company has an ambitious mission statement but one that is already coming to reality: “To revolutionize the collision repair ecosystem by creating a unified platform that streamlines communication, optimizes processes, and empowers stakeholders – ultimately driving significant cost savings and risk reduction for OEMs, body shops, and the entire supply chain.”

There are 30,000 shops in the country that could be potential subscribers to Collision Vision and McDonnell’s goal is to get 10,000 of them on board. He already has 20 companies which are currently using the platform and helping to prove the innovation. “It is happening,” said McDonnell, who has been working to develop the idea for the past three years.

McDonnell’s experience as a shop owner not only provided him with a deep understanding of the issues faced by the industry but connected him to many people across the country with similar experience and understanding. Those connections have proven to be of great value in his process of developing Collision Vision. As McDonnell transformed Big Sky Collision to be recognized as one of the top 50 shops in the nation, he was asked to serve on numerous “inner oval” boards including those of Nissan, Subaru, Chrysler, and Volvo.  There he met many owners of shops including a few who have become part of his new enterprise – individuals who understand the significance of what the new technology holds for so many aspects of the industry.

One high-profile individual in the business, Dan Dent, who has been with Nissan for 17 years, recently left his position to join Collision Vision.

“We are already looking at international markets,” said McDonnell — another new venture for McDonnell.

The Metric Wrench has moved to a new location and is adopting a new name.

Formerly located at 2424 Sixth Ave. North, the automotive business that specializes in servicing European vehicles, has moved to 470 Lake Elmo Drive and is also changing its name to Metric Plus.

Metric Plus, owned by Glenn Fournier, opened at the new location on January 2, offering an even broader range of services. The new shop is a highly technical and highly equipped facility, explained Fournier, which allows his team to expand and provide more services to all kinds of vehicles, from oil changes and basic maintenance, as well as major repairs.

Metric Plus’ new phone number will be 406 200-9400.

The business has been primarily known for their expertise in dealing with German-made vehicles, BMW’s, Mini- Cooper, Mercedes, Volkswagen, Land Rover and other European imports. Fourier has a highly experienced team of three employees who have extensive experience in servicing imports.

Fournier, who has owned Metric Wrench for the past three years, lamented the need to relocate, but said it was necessary because of the level of harassment his business was experiencing with homeless people and other indigents. Their presence was hurting customer retention, he said,  as well as posing a constant barrage of incidents of theft, vandalism, threats of assault and even one actual assault.

The situation of his former location made it impossible to do business, according to Fournier, who added that he is not without sympathy and concern about the indigents, but the environment was not conducive for business.

By Evelyn Pyburn

A plea for more fellowship in politics is nothing new. I have heard people calling for less “partisanship” for years and have understood part of it – or at least what I hope they mean – but there is another aspect I don’t think is wanted by some people. It is that, which seems more threatening, today, than it has for some decades.

Understanding and tolerating the views of fellow citizens is absolutely essential in a country in which freedom is promised to every individual citizen. So that — I not only “get,” but I would agree with it. But, when they seek “unity,” that could be far more difficult.

Asking for a compromise on a tax rate is doable, or the speed limit, or the boundaries of a precinct, but how do you compromise when the opposition is calling for your annihilation? Exactly how do the Jews of Israel compromise with Hamas demanding their total destruction? Does that mean agreeing to the killing of only half their population? Is that the kind of compromise expected of Israel? Just to get along?

It’s like being asked to compromise with someone who plans to shoot you. What kind of a compromise would you strike? About what kind of gun he should use?

That impossible compromise of two diametrically opposed positions is why there were early predictions that the fundamental principle of the US Constitution — declaring that all men are to be equal in a country that practiced slavery — would eventually lead to a civil war. The prognosticators understood that ideas are powerful and even a few words on a piece of paper hold great significance. Also, they understood that there was no way to compromise about how much of a slave’s life should be free. They are either free or they are not.  Our founders knew all this, and yet they wrote the Constitution as they did. Freedom for the individual was a principle they believed important enough to the future of civilization that they were willing to fight for it.

Just think about the injustice of compromising fundamental issues. When someone is simply defending themselves or their property and are asked to compromise with the aggressor, such an agreement is most assuredly to the benefit of the aggressor at a cost to the defender. The defender against aggression will always lose unless he stands strong.

It is a contradiction to justice and a violation of a citizen’s rights. It’s a fundamental over which compromise is not possible, and it is the conflict that usually lies at the basis of most political conflicts today.

The specifics of all our disagreements vary greatly, from how we get our medical care to what kind of stove we can use in our kitchens. Whether we must ride a bus or drive an electric vehicle. The pending conflicts at issue could fill a book, and basic to all of them is the threat of the use of FORCE.

Why ever should the issue of whether the planet is getting warmer be a political one? It is only political because of the threat of the use of FORCE. For the most part, those who disagree are not resisting the conclusion of those who believe it, they are resisting the use of FORCE, which is really the primary goal of the whole debate. Those claiming to believe the planet is warming want to FORCE their ideas and solutions on others.

So how does a society bring about change? There’s a magic little word – it’s called persuasion. Rather than FORCE, you persuade. Rather than addressing the opposition with a club, you address their mind. One is the tool of the caveman the other of civilized society.

Rather than coerce manufacturers to build electric vehicles and then FORCE citizens to buy them, you build the car and build a market – a FREE market – in which the product is refined and its benefit can be demonstrated and consumers are persuaded that it is a better product. The process happens a thousand times a day and it works – if indeed the product is valid. If it is not valid, then what is the point?

Ahh, but there is a point, power over others — brute FORCE. Although the desirability of it is inexplicable.

As a political issue – as an issue that pertains most often to governments – we should not be surprised that this conflict exists. After all, government is FORCE. Government by definition is the legalized use of force. Advocates for a civilized society concluded long ago that the only legitimate use of force is in self-defense or in the defense of others. The men who wrote the US Constitution believed that that principle is one upon which government should also function and they wrote laws meant to deliver that end in our relationships, one with the other, and most especially with how government interacts with citizens.

We should also not be surprised that there are people who do not agree – people who covet power and are more than willing to use it against fellow human beings, even if it is only about what light bulb they should use.

So, if you are among those who just want us all to get along, you should first understand that it is the threat of the use of FORCE that is dividing us, not the many nuances of debates. I might have an opinion about what kind of stove you should use in your kitchen, but we really have no conflict until I attempt to FORCE you to use a specific stove.

If harmonizing while holding hands and singing kumbaya is the goal, then decide what you really think about using FORCE against your neighbor. If one is truly sincere in striving for greater harmony among people, drop any advocacy that relies upon the government pointing a gun at innocent citizens and demanding their obedience. Getting along will not only be achievable, it can be guaranteed. And, who knows what amazing things might truly be achieved.

By Evelyn Pyburn

George Russell Pierce came to Montana in about 1910. He became a peddler, driving around the Butte area in a Model-T, selling Foley’s Honey & Tar Compound, an all- purpose medicine – a very common type of product of that era before medicines had to substantiate their claims. Foley’s Honey & Tar was produced in Chicago from 1895 to the mid-1960’s as a cough medicine, cure for the flu and “all Throat and Lung troubles.” It was comprised of 7% alcohol, pine tar and honey, terpin hydrate, sodium benzyl succinate and gum arabic.

Such was the early beginning of what became a leading entrepreneurial family in Billings, who this year is celebrating their 100th anniversary. The name Pierce is a very familiar one in Billings and it has been since George R. Piece began his own used car business in 1924. Today Pierce -owned companies dominate the RV and flooring businesses in Billings, with locations for both enterprises in several other Montana cities.

Today, Pierce companies are overseen by George’s great grandson and great, great grandson, Ron Pierce and Russell Pierce. Ron is sole owner of the company, and manages Pierce Flooring; while his son, Russell manages Pierce RV.

During the passing generations many changes have occurred since the days of Foley’s Honey & Tar Compound. Pierce RV Supercenter has two locations, Billings and Great Falls. Pierce Flooring – also under the names of the Carpet Barn and Carpet Mill Outlet – has numerous locations in Billings, Bozeman, Missoula, Great Falls and Butte.

The Pierce family is quite reverent about the efforts of previous generations of their family. The stories they have to tell are not only lessons in business but often amusing, reflecting bygone eras.

While the reason that George came to Montana has been lost to history, mining may have been the lure, since it was the era of gold rushes and George’s father, James Harrison Pierce, had participated in the California Gold Rush, in which he did quite well. James Harrison Pierce returned home to Georgia, only to join a bunch of other men from Georgia, leaving behind their homes and wives, to search for gold in Colorado, which was the launching of the Colorado Gold Rush. Leading that group was James Harrison Pierce’s cousin, Green Russell, who is considered the founder of Denver.

James Harrison Pierce and a few cohorts, including Dr. R. J. Russell, first came to Montana by riverboat, arriving in Ft. Benton. Gold mining was at a feverish pitch in southwestern Montana – Bannack, Virginia City, Ruby Valley and Last Chance Gulch. James and his friends freighted supplies to the gold miners. In doing so they discovered there were some camels in the area and soon learned that camels could serve as well as oxen, and even better because they were faster. One day, in which five camels were standing in a field with some oxen, a “tenderfoot” saw them and figured the camels were wild game and shot one – much to the angst of the freight haulers.

They told the “tinderfoot” that they would let him off lightly if he were able to dig a hole and bury the camel in one day – if he failed in that endeavor they threatened to bury him with the camel. The story is, the camel was buried somewhere in the vicinity of where the Capitol building was eventually built in Helena.

George was born in Colorado in 1894.

Before leaving Butte, George met and married Margaret Lee Morrison, who became his life-long partner and mother to their four children. Billings must have appeared as more promising than Butte, because in 1913 George moved his very young family to Billings and gained a job as a car salesman for various entities such as Huppmobile, Goan Motor Company and Rich Motor Company.

In 1924, George began his own business selling used cars – or as he preferred to call them “experienced cars.” George’s three sons, John, George and Frank joined the business after returning from serving in the army during World War II.

George was quite creative in his promotional efforts. He fabricated the existence of a dog named Gumshoe at his business and urged prospective customers to come in and buy a car so he could buy Gumshoe a bone.

George started his used car business by renting part of a building at 30th Street North and Montana Avenue and it grew to such an extent that he soon needed more space, and he purchased a lot at 5th Street West and St. Johns Avenue.

George is remembered as being a master organizer and salesman. He was also a knowledgeable mechanic and part of his business included rebuilding wrecked automobiles.

He built a “bus” to provide transportation between Billings and Miles City, relates Ron Pierce. Through his mechanical genius he put two cars together with an extended axle, and for some time it served as a public means of transportation between the two cities.

In 1939, George became a dealer for Willy’s Jeeps.  He also started selling Linoleum in half the building, which along with carpeting and other floor coverings, which eventually became a separate successful business.

George touted the Jeep as costing less than two cents a mile to operate and claimed they got 30 miles to a gallon of gas.

George held the dealership for the Jeep manufacturer, which was Kaiser Industry in Toledo, Ohio, until the 1960s, when they came out with a model that George didn’t like, so he dropped his dealership.

With the extra space they had at 5th and St. Johns, they added some travel trailers and mobile home displays on the lot. Amazingly this part of the business took off, out stripping used car sales, and it quickly grew into one of the largest RV, modular and mobile home businesses in the region, including leasing and parts and service business. It expanded to another location, a few blocks up the road, at Moore Lane and Laurel Road.

George R. Pierce died in 1958, and his sons took over the business interests.

Ten years later, John and George L. Pierce bought out the interests of Frank Pierce. John Pierce died in 1971 and George L. Pierce purchased  his share of the business, making him the sole owner of the Pierce businesses.

During this time Pierce was growing adding a flooring store in Bozeman and opening the “Carpet Barn”, a discount store, on Grand Avenue in Billings. In 1977 they added a flooring store in Missoula, and in 1984 they opened a store in Great Falls.

George L. Pierce died in 1993, and his sons, Ron and Bill took the leadership helm and became partners, until Bill’s death in 1998. Ron purchased Bill’s interest from his family and has continued as the owner of the businesses until today.

He and his wife, Linda, have two sons, Jake and Russell. Retaining its role as a family business, both sons have worked in various aspects of the business from a young age, and Ron’s cousin, John, for many years managed the RV Flooring side of the business.

In total the Pierce businesses employ about 225 people statewide.

The businesses have continued to grow with the addition of both flooring stores and RV centers in many cities in the state. 

In Billings, Pierce Flooring in 1998 opened the Pierce Home Center at 2950 King Avenue West which incorporated Rimrock Lighting, Appliance and Cabinet Center and Pierce Flooring.

In 2001, Pierce opened a modular and manufactured housing location in Great Falls.

In 2006, Pierce started a second location for RV’s in Kalispell

The RV business made a huge leap in Billings in 2001 at 3800 Pierce Parkway near Zoo Drive interchange with the building and opening of a brand new supercenter for Pierce Homes and RVs. At the same time they built a Pierce RV supercenter in Great Falls.

They started a subdivision in Williston, ND in 2012, for high-end modular homes.

And, in 2012 Pierce opened a homes and leasing business in Glendive.

Ron Pierce is optimistic about the future despite the headwinds for all businesses over the past few years. He notes that while there is more competition and the costs of doing business are higher consumers are more interested than ever in recreational vehicles, so much so that manufacturers cannot keep up – and the industry is projecting a slight increase in 2024.

And as long as other businesses keep building and people keep building homes the flooring business will remain strong.

Asked what he views as the key to success in business, Russell Pierce readily responded, “Doing what’s right for the customer and employees.” It is a challenge that consumes most of your focus every day, but it’s essential to gaining customer loyalty and in retaining the best employees.

He noted that product warranties are only as good as the business that offers it – being a local, family-owned enterprise, “You can come back to us,” he said.

By Evelyn Pyburn

The woman who headed the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in Montana, since 2018, retired a couple weeks ago. Stacy Zinn really didn’t want to retire, but the agency required that at age 57, she do so. But Zinn has much more work to do – much more.

Zinn very much wants Montana citizens to know and understand what is happening in their communities, and retirement is not going to end her efforts to make more transparent the activities of DEA and other law enforcement. Citizens must know in order to bring about the changes that are needed, and to become engaged. Law enforcement are doing their very best to protect the community and they need the community’s support in the fight against the crime associated with illegal drugs, said Zinn. Almost all crime that happens in Billings has a link to illegal drugs.

But Zinn’s real passion is to educate kids. Kids as young as 12 and 13 are having to deal with the issue of drugs in the schools and among their peers, and they usually know nothing about the risks they face – and often, neither do their parents. Most parents are not aware of how dangerous the situation is.

In fact, the drug, LSD, is seeing a comeback among junior high school kids in Billings, reported Zinn last year.

Somehow, said Zinn, “we quit messaging our kids.” At one time there were anti-drug campaigns, seminars in schools and posters on every corner, explaining what drugs are, how to recognize them, how to deal with situations, and the life and death consequences drug use poses – but little of that is happening any more. Zinn is determined to change that. She is willing to go to any classroom, talk to groups of parents, or to individuals one-on-one to inform and educate.

“We can’t arrest ourselves out of this,” said Zinn, stressing that the youth is where it has to start.

Few people know more about the illegal drug trade than Zinn, who began her career with the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) as an undercover agent in El Paso, Texas, dealing with leaders in the cartels. While “I saw first- hand the movement of cartels sneaking in,” and it was deadly serious, “it wasn’t quite the free-for-all it is now.”

Zinn learned how the cartels operated as they fought for control in areas of South America. Each cartel would establish different areas as their territory and anyone “operating” in that area had to pay a tax to whoever  had  control of the area, explained Zinn.

Zinn was plunged into the arena as an undercover agent in Peru. When the agency became aware that a cartel had put out a hit on Zinn’s life, she was relocated. In 2005, the DEA assigned her to FAST, or Foreign-deployed Advisory and Support Team. She spent three years in Afghanistan investigating the opium trade that financed the Taliban and Al Qaeda. During those years she escaped two more attempts on her life.

Being in South America and then in Afghanistan for all those years, Zinn said she was out of touch with what was happening in the US. It was something of a surprise to see how much the organized crime of drug trafficking had invaded the country.

In 2014, when she was assigned as a supervisor for the Tactical Diversion Squad in Montana, there was some expectation that Montana was removed from the heavy crime, and she was dismayed at the level of activity there was in Montana.  However, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota do remain as four of the least untouched states by illegal drug crime.

As the criminals fight for turf they are aware of the potential of these states and of Montana – and they are watching closely to “see how we handle it,” said Zinn.

“What they see in Montana is the dollars,” said Zinn. Drugs that cost a few pennies in Mexico increase in price as they move further north. By the time they reach Billings, depending on the drug, they can cost $40, and in Sidney the price could be $120.

“Montana is one of the last frontiers that hasn’t been saturated with drugs. That is why the prices are so high,” said Zinn.

The risk of fentanyl comes with the inexpensive high it provides. . When a person takes opioid pills over and over the effect of the drug diminishes – “you don’t get that euphoric feeling.” It’s called “chasing the dragon,” explained Zinn. The cartels found a less expensive addictive alternative. “If you mix fentanyl with heroin and you take that and you don’t overdose and die, you get that original euphoric feeling — every time,” explained Zinn.

The problem is users have no idea what dosage of fentanyl they are getting, and it takes but a very miniscule amount to make the difference between a high and death. More people are dying than ever. Part of the risk of fentanyl is that innocent bystanders who accidently come into contact with it can die immediately. It is facts like this that Zinn wants the public to know so they can be aware about the dangers of doing things as simple as picking up trash in the park or where they let their children play.

The status of drug trafficking in Montana has escalated since Zinn’s arrival in 2014. At that time, to intercept a half pound on the streets was “big time”, said Zinn, contrasting that to the fact that now law enforcement can confiscate 70 pounds in a month.

People come here from other areas of the country where they have been “kicked out of their street corners,” by competing dealers. They come to Montana from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

The influx of cartels from Mexico to Montana or from the Fresno Bulldogs is not so much the transplanting of a whole gang, but of “runners” or a few individuals who then set up locals to distribute.

They may come and set up shop in a motel. And, unfortunately in Montana, they have especially targeted Native American communities as bases of operation. But no matter where they go, they start with individuals who are willing to actively participate. They give them free meth, and then when they return for more they ask for money, and then in order to get the money, the newly recruited are pressured into selling and distributing.  Zinn noted that the drug lords eagerly trade for is guns. There is a huge demand for guns in Mexico. That is why there are such high incidents of gun thefts from vehicles in Billings. It is why local police are urging people not to keep guns in vehicles.

Zinn addressed the most recent crime wave that seems to have hit Billings. Who is responsible?

Zinn calls them “wannabe gang bangers.”

Zinn explained that law enforcement is trying to gather information about those involved, which is very difficult and “always fluid.” It’s a tedious process of making connections with who suspects know, who they hang out with, and their past history. “Intel is flued and they have to keep building onto the facts,” said Zinn about the process.

Local law enforcement is putting together a picture of the perpetrators —youngsters of about 14 years and older, who are generally new to Billings.

A couple of them seem to be transplants from California where they had some affiliation with small gangs. They have brought that mentality here, and are now trying to establish their own gangs. Their numbers are unknown.

The question is “who is training and organizing these kids?” said Zinn. Someone older is encouraging them and giving them direction in regard to such things as what cars are easiest to break into, how to break down a gun, what crimes are less likely to be prosecuted.

Law enforcement is trying to identify the mentors. Are the kids having to “pay taxes to their highers?” is a question to be answered.

That there are cartel members in Billings or other more experienced criminals is not being ruled out. Zinn said that there has been some corroboration that members of a notorious gang known as the “Fresno Bulldogs” have a presence in Billings and that “the cartels are running amuck.” Whether that is true is not known, but there is no doubt, according to Zinn, that what is unfolding in Billings is being watched closely by others outside the area, waiting to see if this might be a good place to establish themselves. “How Billings handles the situation is important.”

The past few weeks of one shooting after another is an escalation of violence that indicates that the young gang members are “getting cocky”.  It’s likely that they are using illegal drugs – “at least marijuana.”

Chief of Police Rich St. Johns got it right, said Zinn, when he said that the most likely scenario is these are kids who do not know how to handle confrontation “and they go immediately to a gun.”

The wannabes are hanging out in parks, most especially in the vicinity of North Park around 17th, 18th and 19th streets, and on the south side of Billings. They are attracted to events – -“a large gathering that attracts kids.”

“It’s a tragedy to see kids so young throwing away their lives.” Zinn is talking about the kids taking the drugs and those peddling them. Kids like this often have little parental supervision or have parents with a criminal past themselves, noted Zinn.

Zinn believes that citizens in Billings must play a role in fighting against the crimes. The most important thing citizens can do is pay attention to what is happening in their neighborhoods, and “if you see something, say something.” Call the police’s non-emergency number and report the suspicious activity, “Billings police has indicated that they want that information,” she said.

Get to know your neighbors. Maybe the Neighborhood Watch program needs to be resurrected. Get your neighbors’ phone numbers so you can notify them if there is something they should know about.

And, most important make sure your children know about the dangers of drugs and how the drug dealers manipulate them. “We have to focus on kids. Plant the seeds that drugs are dangerous. If you give them the facts, kids are going to process it.” She further urged, “Give your kids information that generates more conversation at dinner tables. Open lines of communication so kids feel comfortable bringing information to adults. Educating parents and opening the lines of communication – kids are more apt to tell you things.”

“Regardless of what kids are thinking if they are committing crimes and getting away with it, they are leading the way,” said Zinn.

Because drugs can look like prescription medicine it’s important for everyone to understand not to buy pills or borrow pills. If you don’t get pills from a doctor, don’t take any at all.

Businesses, too, play an important role. Clean up graffiti as soon as it happens. “Leaving it only encourages more.” Zinn explained that often the graffiti proclaims “this is our area” to other gangs.

Install fencing and lighting and camera systems. “A good security systems can help law enforcement,” said Zinn.

“Businesses that have policies against confronting or arresting shop lifters, are creating a conducive environment for the criminals,” said Zinn, “They are encouraging crime.”

Landlords have to be responsible and know who they are renting to and make sure they know what is happening on their property.

And, amid all these efforts “we need to speed up the whole system” in adjudicating crime. “We have to have prosecutors and judges who can expedite the legal process,” said Zinn, adding “we don’t have enough defense attorneys.”

If ever you have seen a decal in the window of a local shop with the letters “NFIB” and wondered what it is all about, Bruce Rogers, the area representative for the National Federation of Business (NFIB), is eager to explain.

Rogers serves as liaison between NFIB and business owners in Montana and Wyoming.

Rogers will readily explain that no business organization commands as much attention and respect as NFIB because everyone knows —  legislators, Congressional representatives, and other public leadership —  that the perspectives and positions presented by NFIB comes directly from business owners on Main Street USA. One might say “when NFIB speaks everyone listens.”

NFIB is the largest, most influential business organization in the country, said Rogers. 

“We are also the only organization fighting exclusively for independent business owners at both state and the federal levels.” said Rogers.

 “NFIB works with the support of business owners in your area – in your hometown, to stop legislation that will severely hurt local business. We need their participation.”

NFIB is currently testifying on such issues as finding quality labor, inflation, taxes, regulation and health insurance.

NFIB has several thousand members in Montana and representing every kind and size of independent business.  “That is why when we testify before committees, your politicians know we speak for the entire small business community and not just a special interest group,” said Rogers. 

Member business owners get to vote ballots that come in their email inbox, or on the NFIB Engage app, several times a year, about state and federal issues that will affect business profits. 

“To impact the issues we take action by testifying and fighting before Congress, the state legislature, and the courts, including the Supreme Court of the United States,” explained Rogers, “We then report back to our members on how your elected officials voted on the same issues you voted on so you have a report card showing you who is actually standing up for your business and who is not.”

This process is so successful that major news media from both sides of the aisle have consistently rated NFIB as the most effective business organization in America. 

“While you’re busy running your business, we are working to protect it,” said Rogers.

Some of the more recent victories achieved by NFIB for business owners include:

* creating the 20% Small Business Deduction (Section 199A)

* NFIB v. OSHA, the U.S. Supreme Court issued stay of OSHA’s vaccine mandate following a successful SCOTUS challenge by NFIB.  NFIB’s Legal Center has a long list of victories.

* NFIB helped increase the business equipment tax exemption to $1 million and reduce income taxes in Montana.

 Other issues which are an important focus of NFIB is to support the protection of, and efforts to further secure, the right of individuals to work as independent contractors and for business owners to choose to lawfully classify workers as independent contractors.

Also, multiple proposals before Congress would mandate paid sick leave and paid family medical leave mandates on small businesses.  The Build Back Better Act contains an inflexible four-week federal paid family leave program that would pose challenges to small employers trying to manage and maintain their workforce.  Other proposals would mandate ten days of paid sick leave and up to 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave on all employers, similar to the temporary requirements from the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) of 2020. 

Small business owners have been joining together for 5, 10, 20, even 75 years to level the playing field with big government and big business.

NFIB handles membership differently than is typical of most organizations. Rogers explained “It is important that everyone is able to be involved; therefore NFIB membership is based on what you feel you can invest, up to a maximum of $15,000, so no one individual can buy influence.  As a non-profit organization, we have a one-member, one-vote policy regardless of the amount you choose to invest.”

There is a recommended investment based on number of employees and membership is available annually, quarterly and monthly. 

Each NFIB member is urged to do two things – vote their ballot and display their membership plaque and decal which clearly make the statement that “you are doing your part to protect the American free enterprise system.”

For more information check it out at: about-nfib/ what-is-nfib/ national-victories/

By Evelyn Pyburn

So reports are that migrants who have come to the US illegally are disappointed and want to return home. They are saying “the American dream is dead.”

As one Venezuelan illegal was quoted, “The American Dream doesn’t exist anymore. There’s nothing here for us… We just want to be home. If we’re going to be sleeping in the street here, we’d rather be sleeping in the streets over there.”

If they thought the “American dream” was handouts, freebees and socialized care from cradle to the grave, then double good riddance to them.

The “American dream” was never about those things – the American dream is, and will always be, about the freedom of individuals to work hard, to create and to generate wealth – the wealth that makes socialistic whims possible, for those who want to be kept citizens. But the socialistic whims only last until – as it has been said – we run out of other people’s money. “Other people”, of course, being those who are producing the wealth needed to sustain those who prefer not to work.

And, we should be doubly glad that they are gone because they are ILLEGAL! If they do not respect our country to the degree that their first act is to commit a crime with the crossing of our borders, then exactly when can we expect them to be law-abiding, trust worthy citizens, who truly respect this country and its laws?

The answer is never.

Never will they stand up and defend those principles or the people who live by them, when the chips are down – which is a most likely scenario with so many dishonest and disrespectful criminals abiding among us, who will vote for corrupt politicians. They vote for unethical politicians to wield the force that is necessary to aid them in their ideal of confiscating the property of the honest and productive citizens.

That there are many people crashing our borders because they want freedom there is no doubt. It is mind boggling that there are many in the US who apparently do not want freedom – people who apparently believe that powerful politicians, who will subjugate others, are their friends. It is indeed too bad that they have never studied history.

There was a reason for having a legal structure to enter the US – so immigrants would not have to sleep in the streets. Part of that process included immigrants having a sponsor – someone to help them get established so they would have a place to live, food and a job. And, US citizens across the board readily stepped up to be sponsors. Often they were church organizations, not unlike the one recently reported on in Billings that is assisting legal immigrants.

Democratic leaders in places like Chicago and New York are crying that they lack the resources to feed and house the thousands upon thousands of illegal immigrants who have descended upon their communities, and they blame President Biden for not giving them enough funding to do so. They say their states have provided millions in aid but the federal government has not matched it.

These politicians are little different than the illegal immigrants who thought the “American dream” was about freebees and handouts. They too do not understand the “American dream.” They apparently do not know that it isn’t their state or the federal government that has the wealth needed to support the illegal aliens. They do not seem to know that the aid they talk about comes from taxpayers – the citizens who work and produce and abide by the laws. They express no appreciation or recognition for the people from whom the funds must come. But given the role they play as legal plunderers, their indifference is not surprising.

This situation of encouraging illegal immigrants to enter the US, seeking a distorted perception of the American dream, has every potential of unraveling the fabric of the “American dream.”

The truly sad thing is the “American dream” is not something that has to be uniquely American. Any country can have it. Nothing – absolutely nothing – stands in the way of any country having the wealth and standard of living that Americans have – but it can’t be achieved through socialism or any kind of collectivism.  The people of a country – including the US —must rid themselves of the confiscators – the corrupt politicians – and they must believe in the justness of individual freedom, and abide by the ideals and principles of individual responsibility and system of laws, rather than the favors of power mongers.

While many illegal immigrants have come with a very incorrect idea about what the American dream is –they are not alone. Many Americans hold the same mistaken ideas, which is significant because it is the IDEA that matters. It is not a matter of borders. The American dream is built upon an IDEA . . . and it is that IDEA that is the focus of the desperate efforts of collectivists to censor communications, silence free speech and criminalize the exchange of ideas, so that people never understand the IDEA. It is the IDEA of the “American dream” that they fear. The American dream is the IDEA that each citizen should be free to live life as they choose.