It’s almost time for Dig It Days! The fun-filled event of big construction machines will once again top-off Montana Fair on its last two days, Friday and Saturday, August 18 and 19.

Sponsors are being lined up in three levels this year, filling more booths and displays than ever before. Any construction or family related business interested in being part of Dig It Days is urged to contact Jonathan McNiven (406 672-5941).

Dig It Days is an opportunity for kids to explore, climb on, “drive”, take pictures and fantasize about every kind of dirt-moving, heavy equipment imaginable. A production of Yellowstone Family and sponsored by equipment dealers, contractors and others involved in the construction industry, the event is aimed at introducing youngsters to the construction industry. It’s also a fundraiser for scholarships.

Dig It Days gives kids of all ages an opportunity to operate back hoes and excavators, under supervision of experienced operators  — and some of those kids are “oldsters” who have always wanted to try their hand at operating one of the big machines. 

Also, a very popular feature is “Sand Mountain,” where kids can play and dig in the sand to their heart’s content. They never want to leave.

The Dig It Days board has set new fundraising goals and added new beneficiaries for the proceeds. Besides the event’s primary focus of providing scholarships that support the future workers and leadership of the construction industry, donations will also be made to a local law enforcement group, a mental health /suicide prevention fund, Veterans Navigation Network, Yellowstone Boys and Girls Club, and KOA Kids Camp.

Dig It Days will give out 750 t-shirts each day, construction hats and stickers, on a first-come bases. And, it’s all free (after paying fair admission).

Part of the events include what has grown to be a popular contest in which operators employed by many of the sponsors compete to see who can pick up and move eggs with a backhoe shovel without breaking any eggs. The winner gets $500. It is important to note that it is primarily the employees of the sponsors who volunteer to monitor and oversee the displays and activities bringing their expertise and experience to make sure all goes smoothly and safely.

Get more information at

Dig It Days was launched in 2019 by Yellowstone Family, Yellowstone County News’ non-profit foundation, with the goal of providing wholesome, fun, family entertainment and education, while supporting worthwhile programs for youth.

The budget for Yellowstone County is plagued with inflation woes, which is compounded by needs for additional staffing as well as the increased costs of obtaining and retaining staff.

The overall estimate for taxes levied for the new fiscal year budget is $62.5 million, an increase over last year’s $60 million budget.

“While Yellowstone County is in sound financial position, our preliminary fiscal year budget comes with some continued challenges, Jennifer Jones, County Director of Finance and Budget, explained to County Commissioners, last week, as they reviewed, with each county department head, their proposed budgets and needs for the coming year.

Yellowstone County is not predicting an increase to actual mills levied in FY 2024. “We have no new voter approved mills, however, property taxes will increase slightly by the statutorily allowed inflationary factor and estimated new growth rate,” said Jones.

The county’s annual review gives a broad picture of the operations of county government, as well as establishing a budget for fiscal year 2023-24, which determines the mills the county assesses. With taxpayers having recently received new property tax assessments, which were considerably higher than in years past, there has generally been great angst among taxpayers about what their tax bill will look like.  

Jones said that over 90 percent of requests for additional staff came from legal, law enforcement and detention center needs.

The budget continues to focus on long-term capital needs, including MetraPark, the Miller Building, the Detention Facility and eventually the extensive remodeling of the courthouse to accommodate court-related new growth including the possibility of new judges.

Whether Yellowstone County needs to expand its jail has been an issue of considerable interest by citizens. In looking at the costs and future revenue projections, Jones explained the realities that must be faced by the county in making that decision.

“Our recently expanded detention facility is potentially scheduled for additional review as to capacity. We continue to maintain that our issues are not solely related to our detention facility being too small, but rather to some issues outside Yellowstone County’s control. Some of those issues to consider before pursuing an expansion would be the pace of the judicial system, mental health programs available in the community, and most of all the failure to address the lack of detention space at the state level which adds to our facility’s numbers. If the eventual decision is made to expand the facility again, it will be nothing like our previous expansion completed in 2020. Both a material increase in the County’s mill levy and a significant debt obligation will need approval by our voters.”

Remodeling will also be necessary for the Miller Building, which the county purchased to accommodate the county’s need for administration space. Work will begin on the Miller Building when its tenant leases expire and the county ends its lease for space in the Stillwater Building. “Currently, we are slated to begin the transition …to the newly remodeled Miller Building by the end of Fiscal Year 2025,” said Jones. “This will free up space in the Courthouse for our district and justice courts, county attorney offices and the possibility of another justice court judge. We project to be able to remodel the Miller space and remodel the courthouse with neither, any need for additional debt nor any need for a tax increase, thanks to reserves in our Capital Improvement Fund.”

COVID funds from the federal government – -The American Rescue Plan Act – has allowed the county to address infrastructure needs at MetraPark – “for which funding options were few.” Jones said, “Not only will these improvements provide the campus flexibility and responsiveness in times of community need, but it improves the campus with overall safety and functionality.” The upgrades are projected to be completed by the end of FY 2024.

In addition to the infrastructure work at Metra, the county has begun the process of bringing other improvements to Metra operations. The County has retained an industry consulting group to assist in finalizing Metra management staff, then to conduct a review and assist in the implementation of industry “best practices”, improving internal processes to increase efficiencies in operations, grow revenue streams, and reduce the County’s dependence upon mill levy support.

Jones explained that her tax revenue projections for 2024 are based upon an estimated growth factor of 2.2 percent and the State allowed increase for the rate of inflation rate of 2.46 percent.

Entitlement funds from the State, and the addition of new property tax revenue from new construction over the past year, help reduce the mills assessed to each taxpayer. Increased interest rates earned on county funds will also be higher than the “record lows” of past years, which will ease the burden. (The Entitlement fund was created by the state legislature in 2001 to compensate counties for revenues lost when the State assumed responsibility of collecting vehicle taxes. Yellowstone County’s share in FY2024 is $5,471,792.67)

Given the higher property valuations this year, the proposed county budget estimates an increase in the amount that will be protested— any revenues from which are not released to the county until the protest case is settled.

Tax revenue that comes of new growth or construction is projected to increase 2.2 percent for 2024.

The county is also allowed by the State to increase revenue 2.46 percent to accommodate for inflation.

Also included in tax revenues for 2024 is estimated marijuana tax revenue of $750,000.

Big Sky Economic Development (BSED), although a county entity, functions under a separate fund and generates separate revenues. The tax levy for BSED is estimated to generate $1,431,441 before protests. BSED will also receive about $268,665 from the State Entitlement Fund.

County Commissioners are reviewing much of the county’s salary structure “with the twin goal of attracting and retaining personnel in order to reduce overtime related to vacancies.” Salary and benefit costs included in the budget reflect estimates for union contracts currently in negotiations.

While the rise in inflation was felt last fiscal year, as well, this year many of the county’s contracted services are tied to the inflation factor resulting in significant increases to those contracts. Compounding high inflation is the rise of utilities and price increases mainly in the IT, public safety and construction related portions of the budget.

Staff increases are projected for: 6 new patrol deputies; 2 in the County Attorney’s office; 2 in Youth Service Center; 1 in Public Works; and 1 in elections.

Activities and events at MetraPark generates $110.7 million annually to the local economy, according to a recent study commissioned by the MetraPark Advisory Board.   

The economic impact is the money spent by visitors attending MetraPark events at local businesses in Billings and Yellowstone County, most especially at motels and restaurants, gas stations and retail shops.

The economic impact of Metra Park is a relevant factor to the community as it considers the pros and cons of the cost to taxpayers in subsidizing the county-owned facility that hosts everything from rodeos and livestock shows to concerts, sports and tradeshows. Each year, MetraPark events draw thousands of visitors to Billings while being subsidized by a property tax mill levy to the tune of $2.5 million.

Mike Mayott, President of the MetraPark Advisory Board, who oversaw the study conducted by Circle Analytics, said that while he considers himself a fiscal conservative this is one expenditure of tax money he considers of value. “I would invest in most anything that returned $44 for every dollar invested,” he said. It seems to be the “greatest investment we can make,” he continued, “We are adding a lot to the economy.”  In fact, considering that Yellowstone County has a gross domestic product of over $11 billion, MetraPark contributes a full percentage point to the total annual production of the county.   

The research shows that in a comparison to figures from 2018 (the latest year in which all the metrics are the same and comparable) MetraPark improved in every category except one.  It also demonstrates that MetraPark has become multi-dimensional, said Mayott.

Mayott reported study results at the previous meeting of the MetraPark Advisory Board, explaining the value of the research that has been done by Circle Analytics. The company is highly regarded in what they do, he said, pointing out that one of their clients is SpaceX.

The MetraPark Advisory Board agreed to continue subscribing to Placer.AI for MetraPark attendance data, which will give MetraPark planners access to on-going current data and to seven years of past data, and to also continue getting analysis from Circle Analytics. Mayott explained that once MetraPark staff is trained in what the data means and how it can be used, it will become a valuable tool.  “It will tell us whether we are making the right decisions.”

“Hopefully, it will help to drive the subsidy down,” said Mayott, “to get it as low as possible.”

The cost for annual updates from Circle Analytics is $1500 annually and for on-going data from Placer.AI the cost is $14,000.

While the monetary impact of MetraPark to the local economy is substantial, it does not include the social or civic benefits that MetraPark contributes as a free venue for many youth, educational and non-profit events. Mayott further pointed out that MetraPark serves a broad base of interests in the community. Metra Park also partners with a wide variety of businesses and organizations that further add to the economic base of the community, such as with the Exchange Club that supports non-profits, or companies like Baskin Robbins and Fuddruckers and many other vendors who sell products at MetraPark.

“This is an opportunity to be able to say something good about government,” jested Mayott.

MetraPark Interm Manager Tim Goodridge and Big Sky Economic Development applied for and received a grant from NorthWestern Energy to fund the study.

According to the study, in 2022 more than 819,000 guests attended or participated in a tradeshow, sporting event, or other entertainment at MetraPark. It is estimated that 37.8 percent of those visitors were from out of the area, and that on average they spent $180 per day per visitor. Local attendees were estimated to spend $39 per day.

A summary of the various levels of economic impacts generated by MetraPark were included in the study. The economic impact of $110.7 million, that is annually retained in the local economy, is part of  $177.9 million in “Gross Economic Output” annually, which includes indirect and induced impacts. Direct impacts include MetraPark’s annual operating budget, estimated benefits from vendor revenues and the economic value of visitor spending. Indirect impacts of $124.7 million includes purchases that businesses must make in order to serve visitors who come to events at MetraPark (for example increased sales for linen supply firms who sell more linens to motels). Induced effects result from increased household spending from local earnings in the tourism and supporting sectors.

Some of the impacts estimated by business sector were $5,444,827 for “food and beverage stores”; $12,817,771 for “restaurants”; $18,105,583 for “Gasoline stations’; $19,195,826 for “Hotels and motels”;  $8,986,765 for “Miscellaneous store retailers”; and $24,811,945 for “Miscellaneous services”.

Other impacts:

—$68.3 million in Total Labor Income

—2,694 total jobs (full and part-time)

—$27.5 million in Capital Income (includes profits, rents, etc.)

—$14.8 million in Indirect Business Taxes and Fees

By Evelyn Pyburn

On Memorial Day, Greycliff Mill celebrated their second year in business.

Located at Greycliff, Montana, just east of Big Timber, Greycliff Mill is something of an oasis for travelers along Interstate 90, offering a place to get a cup of coffee or a sandwich, stretch your legs, give the kids a chance to exercise, browse the wares in a unique shop featuring locally produced foods, crafts and art. It is also an opportunity to “get out of town” for an evening to enjoy a unique farm- to- table dinner.

Greycliff Mill is an extension of an 1800 acre farm that is owned by a group of individuals who have been operating it for the past 15 years. The roadside business features all-things Montana – from foods that are raised and prepared on the farm or on other farms and ranches in the area, as well as art and crafts produced by talented and skilled local artisans.

Assistant manager of Greycliff Mill, Daniel Saylor, explains that the pastries and breads featured in their restaurant are made from flour that is made from grain that is grown and milled at their own grist mill – a mill that was originally built in 1870 in upstate New York. It was disassembled piece by piece, and reassembled at Greycliff. Water from three scenic terraced ponds is used to turn the grist mill.

The ponds are part of the beautifully landscaped grounds that include a pavilion, gardens and grassy knolls that provide a great venue for events such as weddings or family reunions or civic celebrations. The setting sprawls beneath the towering cliffs that give the site its name.

According to Saylor, the cliffs are a former buffalo jump used by Native Americans.

Greycliff Mill has six cabins available for overnight visitors. Some are restored cabins moved from Roberts, Montana, and some are high end cabins in converted grain silos brought in from South Dakota.

There are no more plans to add additional buildings, but they do plan to expand the garden and park areas.

Everything on exhibit or for sale at Greycliff Mill is carefully selected, explained Saylor, to reflect the vision of its developers – “in keeping with rural Montana and a family environment they are trying to create.” Items from local farms or offered by local artisans are curated and thoughtfully selected to present whether it’s the beef or lamb served or the art featuring Montana wildlife and scenery,  taxidermy, basketry, leather work, iron work or wool work, or a wide array of gift items like locally-made soaps, jellies and jams.

Greycliff Mill has a cheese cave where they produce the cheese they serve and sell. They have gardens where they grow many of their own vegetables, while purchasing others from the gardens of neighbors or a greenhouse in Columbus. They also acquire their milk from local dairies.

Every other Saturday, a farm-to-table dinner, featuring several courses of various ethnic meals, are served to 60-80 guests. Reservations are required and a schedule of featured meals is available on the Greycliff Mill website.

Saylor said that it is surprising to see where the guests come from to partake of their special meals. About a fourth are from distant locations – from Washington to as far away as Florida. Apparently, guests in planning a trip visit the website take advantage of being able to include a visit to Greycliff Mill for a special meal.

The Greycliff compound includes several workshops, in which they plan to soon host local artists and instructors who will conduct scheduled classes on the how to make various craft items such as baskets, leather work, and other artistic skills.

Other features include horseback riding or a carriage ride or a special- planned chuck wagon group dinner complete with campfire back on the ranch.

Elisha Sherman is Manager of Greycliff Mill, which employs  six to ten people, with more to be hired as they head into the gardening season.


Amid balloons, tents, ribbons, speakers, blue skies, and lots of food, hundreds of people marked what had been advertised as a historic day for Yellowstone County – – and it was, as Par Pacific Holdings, Inc. officially closed on the purchase of ExxonMobil Corporation’s refinery at Lockwood and other properties including two subsidiaries.

Not since the refinery’s opening in 1949 has the refinery drawn so much attention, said Dan Carter, Public Affairs director for the refinery. Carter explained how people in Billings embraced the new refinery as it was being built, traveling out in trucks and busses every day, to see what was happening and to watch it rise up from what was then wide open prairie.

It changed the landscape in the valley and for the economy, said Carter, “Now, 75 years later the refinery is undergoing another organic, seismic change.”

Commending the refinery’s employees and leadership for “eight long months” of preparation for this day, Will Monteleone, President of Par Pacific Holdings, said that they are honored to become a part of the “talented team” and to be part of Billings and Yellowstone County, adding that the overall logistics and operation of the refinery, aligns perfectly with that of Par Pacific.

The $310 million sale of the ExxonMobil properties was announced in October 2022.

To now be known as Par Montana, the business joins that of Par Pacific, a market-leading energy, infrastructure and retail business, headquartered in Houston, Texas.  Par Pacific operates an integrated downstream network, throughout the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies, and Hawaii, including 218,000 bpd of combined refining capacity across four locations, related multimodal logistics systems and 121 retail locations.

Montana Lt. Governor Kristen Juras welcomed Par Pacific to the state, saying “This is a big deal. It is a great opportunity for Montana and Yellowstone County.” The “good paying jobs” it will create will aid in stopping “the export of our kids,” she said.

Bill Pate, CEO of Par Pacific Holdings said “We are going to grow Par Montana” with a focus on “how can we expand this company?”

He said that the success of Par Pacific has been in recognizing the importance of being part of the businesses they acquire. “We differentiate ourselves by immersing ourselves into the company, into the local connections and into the local community.”

Part of being local was to encourage the refinery employees to choose a new name for the refinery and a new logo, which was also unveiled on Thursday –simple clean lines representing the rims and the river running below them.

Par Montana will be the lynch pin, not just a refinery,” said Pate, noting that they have three refineries in other states. “This acquisition significantly enhances our scale and geographic diversification. We expect the transaction to be immediately accretive to our earnings and cash flow. It is about how do we take what we have today and add on to it renewables, and continue to do what they do just using other feed stocks.”

“The key element of our strategy here is actually getting our reliability up and getting more production,” Pate said. “The state of Montana, the states around Montana, they need more fuels. It’s a tight market.”

Kim Jakub, the refinery manager, said that the refinery team has shown courage and commitment in the transition process. She said that “Billings is the perfect complement to our future. We will continue to be a strong community partner.”

The Billings refinery is a 63,000 barrel-per-day (bpd), high-conversion, complex facility that processes low-cost Western Canadian and regional Rocky Mountain crude oil. The refinery converts crude into gasoline, distillate, asphalt and other products to serve regional demand.

It employs about 320 people and has 80-100 contractors on-site on any given day supporting operations.

Included in the Par Pacific transaction was  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 four wholly owned and three joint venture refined product terminals located in Montana and Washington. Total storage capacity across the refinery and logistics locations totals 4.1 million barrels. Further, Par Pacific will supply approximately 250 Exxon and Mobil branded retail locations as part of the arrangement with ExxonMobil.

When the Billings refinery was opened in 1949 by Carter Oil Co. it processed 20,000 barrels of crude oil per day. Exxon has operated the refinery since 1973.

In 1947, 500 acres was purchased and plotted for the current refinery operations for about $61,000.

Evelyn Pyburn

We are over the top, ridiculous, when freedom is so far lost that people are turned out into the cold to freeze in order to defend bureaucrats’ regulatory turf. That’s what happened in Montana when in the depth of winter, churches wanting to provide a warm place for homeless families were thwarted by fat and happy, taxpayer-kept code enforcers, because the churches did not meet fire codes.

It’s a case in which some people believe that their rules and their power are more important than human life. This incident, which required an act of the state legislature in order to instill some common sense, is actually a clear and stark example of what really stands in the way of things like affordable housing, as well as many other aspects of a free society.

Life is about risks and making choices in dealing with risk. It’s apparent that some people are pursuing the impossible – to remove all risk – not understanding that to remove risk is to remove life.  Such it is,  to insist that people endure sub-zero cold on a winter’s night just in case a church might burn down. It is to make pursuit of perfection a higher priority than human life. It is to conclude that the “ideal” square footage of a house is more important than actually sheltering human life.

To go on …. it is to eschew cheap and abundant energy in a quest to eliminate potential risk for future life, even if it means the death of current life. It is to conclude that the hypothetical rescue of a planet is more important than the people who live on it. Pursuit of such a value is not to know that a planet or any inanimate object does not hold values… life is required for values to exist. Sustaining life is the sole purpose of values. So how is one to explain the purpose of pursuing a “value” that destroys life?

Of course there is a benefit in reducing the likelihood of fire in a church or to make sure that a house is built as soundly as possible – -but not when the church stands empty because the people it was intended to serve froze to death, or that a house is not built because no one can afford to build it. It is profoundly true, as is being claimed, that there is a shortage of affordable housing because of regulations. There is no doubt that a free market would generate housing in unbelievable abundance if the market were only allowed to do so – if regulations didn’t stop people from building homes.

One of the beauties of a free – UNREGULATED – market is that it quickly and accurately balances risks and benefits – on multiple levels all at the same time – which then advances the ability of human beings to improve upon a situation, whether it’s coming in from the cold or creating more wealth (ie. wellbeing). Or to strive for those things with greater benefits and less risk in a manner of their choosing. Living and serving life is a fluid process not rigid mandates. Choosing what risks one wants to assume is a personal decision – one that requires the freedom to do so.

This is not a new idea.

Emerging from across the spectrum of Billings’ political, civic and business communities are a growing number of people interested in making sure that voters understand exactly what the ten-year revisit of the city’s charter is all about – and to encourage people to vote “Yes.” The issue will be placed on a ballot in June 2024.

Dave Goodridge, one of the leaders of the informal group that has met a couple of times now, said last week that no matter which way a person votes, he wants to make sure they understand what the vote is all about. It was noted numerous times in the course of discussion, that in the past people have voted against reviewing the City Charter simply because there is a small temporary tax associated with it and many people have a tendency to vote against anything that means more taxes – especially if they don’t understand the purpose.

Attending the meeting was Scott Aspenlieder, a civil engineer and local business owner, who announced that he is going to run for city council. Also expressing strong support for revisiting the city’s charter has been current city council woman, Jennifer Owen.

A number of city council members have also apparently indicated that they too would support reviewing the city charter. Goodridge pointed out that if a majority of citizens vote “yes” to review the charter, there needs to be “strong council members” to carry it through, “so, understand who you are voting for.”

The government of the City of Billings functions under a Charter that establishes a unique realm of laws to govern it.  A charter is something of a bubble, within whose boundaries citizens choose how to govern themselves in ways that often supersede state laws or suspend some citizen rights to create a governing structure, to determine how it selects leadership, how it taxes, etc.

It’s been decades since any changes have been made to the Charter for the City of Billings, during which time many things have changed —- most especially the city has grown significantly. “It’s time!” contend those in the group.

It is required by state law that every ten years a governmental body functioning under a charter allow the citizens to vote as to whether they want to continue for another ten years under the charter as it is, or whether they want to do a study of the charter to consider changes.

Only one time did the ten-year vote result in calling for a study review committee and the committee returned with the recommendation to make no changes.

A one-time property tax of $6 to $9 would be assessed to pay for the cost of doing a study, if that is what the citizens indicate they want.

If most citizens vote “no” the existing Charter and city laws remain in force. If a majority votes “yes” a review committee is created to study the Charter, solicit public input and make whatever changes they believe is necessary. The finished product is then put before the citizens for another vote.

The group of citizens – so far functioning without any formal name – understand that they have about a year to get the word out. How to do that in the most effective way possible was basically the focus of discussion. They identified organizations in Billings that they could ask to support the effort and to participate in educating the public. It was noted that the Billings Association of Realtors has already made official its support of reevaluating the City’s charter. And, from the discussion within the group, it sounded like preliminary inquiries have elicited a positive response from most groups.

Whatever the citizens’ group does, it must do with what is, so far, a “zero” budget. So whatever support and cooperation they can get from other organizations will be essential. Getting recognizable and respected people in the community to come out in favor of voting “yes” will also be important, and it was noted that they need to create a one-page sheet that provides answers to basic questions, and to be able to answer questions themselves.

Goodridge said that he believes that this ten-year citizen referendum is important because it does impact the city for the next ten years and it presents the easiest way to initiate a Charter review. State law provides for two other approaches to consider changes to the Charter, but they are more complicated and costly.

This is the time to do it, according to all those in attendance. Another meeting will be held soon. (Anyone interested in being notified about the meeting can contact Goodridge at

By Evelyn Pyburn

The concept of non-partisan is nonsense.

It’s to say that a person doesn’t have an opinion. It’s to say they aren’t thinking. An employer I once worked for told me that they wouldn’t want someone working for them who didn’t have opinions because it meant they didn’t think.

While I am certain there are people in this world who don’t think, that’s not what “non-partisan” elections mean – it means the voter is to be denied knowledge about WHAT the candidate thinks.

The only thing a party affiliation might convey to a voter is where the candidates generally stand on issues. It’s a short-hand of sorts – which at its best is limited in the information it conveys to the voter but it could convey some information – certainly more than in not knowing. And, if a candidate doesn’t want to identify with either party they can say so. They can declare themselves an independent – and that also conveys information to the voters. Or better yet, they can be very specific with voters about what they do think.

What a voter wants to know is “How do you stand on issues? What can I expect from you in how you administrate?”

The answer to those questions may or may not reflect a specific political party, but there are lots of issues, some likely to be unanticipated, and knowing if a candidate likes one party or another could indicate a general philosophical position for voters —  that’s why parties have platforms. The issue isn’t about parties, it’s about ideas.

Why would anyone want to deny voters of as much information as possible? What’s the point in voting if you don’t know what you are voting for? There is an answer to this of course. Within the realm of political gamesmanship there are many times that a candidate doesn’t want the voters to know the truth of their positions, it doesn’t mean they don’t have them.  All the more reason a voter should know the ideas and policies a candidate holds.

Those who insist there are benefits to “non-partisanship” are quite obviously partisans.

What is baffling though is why do candidates go along with the program? I have encountered candidates who when campaigning in a “non-partisan election” say they avoid revealing their ideas in case it reflects a specific party. I found that incomprehensible. Just because someone declares it non-partisan doesn’t mean you have to play the game.

There is a sliver of understanding why people may want to see judges identified as non-partisan from the standpoint that that term for many people is interpreted to mean the candidate will be objective in their decisions. Again, utter nonsense.

They – maybe more than most – have ideas and opinions about issues— guaranteed. Declaring that judges should be non-partisan is to misunderstand the point of it all. The question we as voters should want answered is “Can you set your political views and biases aside and interpret the law even if it is contrary to your personal views?” That is real non-partisanship.

If they can interpret the law as written and not advocate for their political views then they can make a good judge – but as we have come to see over the past few decades, this is an increasingly rare ability. Calling for non-partisanship does nothing to identify judges who are smart enough or honest enough to interpret the law.

There are undoubtedly laws that are not good, but if they need to be changed that is the role of legislature – not the judicial branch. Unfortunately, that seems to be an understanding about our system that most judges have forgotten or failed to ever know.

The fact is if a bad law is accurately interpreted by a judge, such a decision could prompt a legislature to correct it – assuming of course that the legislature also sees it as a bad law – ahh, but there’s the rub – most judges who write law rather than interpret the law, do so in order to circumvent a legislature whose majority may very well not agree. Of course, such a judge has absolutely no business being a judge and is in fact unscrupulous in character.

So when you, as a voter, are asked to participate in a non-partisan election, know that partisan games are being played and that you are not being respected as a voter. Understand that the deck is being stacked against you, and dedicate yourself to not accepting such rules.

Sherry Long, Treasurer for Yellowstone County, has informed County Commissioners of her intention to retire. Long’s last day serving her third term in office will be July 31.

Long stated, “After the last 3 years of going through the challenges of working through orchestrating the workflow, scheduling, and meeting the many deadlines, with the severe staff shortages, we are finally fully staffed and therefore are better able to serve the public in a timelier manner.  I feel my office is at a good spot now for me to retire.”

“I have enjoyed my last 8+ years serving the citizens of Yellowstone County, and I thank them for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to do so,” said Long, a Republican, who was first elected to the position in 2014.

Prior to that she was an assistant to the County Superintendent of Schools, a role that has since been scaled down a part time position, which Long also fills on a stipend. The Treasurer’s office also serves the role as county assessor, which is also a stipend position.

The County Commissioners are charged with finding a replacement for Long. According Commissioner John Ostlund the process will involve advertising the position to seek applications. The commissioners will then conduct public interviews of candidates who apply and make a selection prior to July 31.

The office of the Treasurer receives and disburses all monies, as dictated by state law, and records these transactions. The Treasurer reports to the Montana State Department of Revenue on administrative matters while the County Commissioners have budgetary authority.

The office is divided into two groups. One deals with motor vehicle matters, including registrations, title transfers and applications, and the issuance of temporary stickers and permits. The other serves as the general office for activities including receipts from taxes, fees and intergovernmnetal transfers. It also processes disbursements, invests funds, maintains bank accounts, seizes tax delinquent property, handles tax protests, and issues moving permits for mobile homes.

Despite the conclusion of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) that air quality measures are adequate in the operation of NorthWestern Energy’s Laurel Generating Plant, a Thirteenth Judicial District Court has ruled that the DEQ’s issuance of a permit in 2021 was unlawful. The decision, made by District Court Judge Michael Moses, brings into question the air quality assessments done by DEQ specialists and invalidates the permit the state agency issued. That means construction must be halted on the Yellowstone County Generating Station near Laurel, which the utility company claims is essential to meet the future energy needs of Yellowstone County.

NorthWestern Energy responded saying they will seek an immediate stay to allow continued construction, and will appeal the decision. Company spokespeople noted that while the District Court found only two limited issues with Montana DEQ’s analysis, “… the court unfortunately took the extreme step to vacate the air permit.”

Neighbors of the proposed project, called the “Thiel Road Coalition”,who have been organized in part by the Montana Environmental Information Center, (MEIC) say they are concerned about the plant’s impacts on their health, property, businesses and the Yellowstone River.

Earthjustice represents MEIC and Sierra Club in the lawsuit, in conjunction with four citizens, who filed suit on October 21, 2021, challenging the permit for NorthWestern Energy’s proposed 175-megawatt methane gas-fired power plant located next to the CHS Refinery at Laurel. The suit claims the DEQ’s evaluations did not consider the plant’s potential “greenhouse gas emissions and associated climate impacts in Montana,”

 “We are very concerned that this project will harm people who live near the proposed plant,” said local resident, Steve Krum. “Every time we have raised concerns about the impacts this plant will have on the quality of life of the neighbors and the Yellowstone River, those concerns have been dismissed.”

In a press release, NorthWestern Energy stated that it “appreciates that Montana District Court Judge Michael Moses supported the majority of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s air quality permit…”  issued to NorthWestern Energy “after significant review and analysis for construction of the Yellowstone County Generating Station.”

In its press release, MEIC stated, “The Court’s ruling critiqued DEQ for failing to analyze the gas plant’s greenhouse gas emissions and associated climate impacts in Montana, as well as the plant’s impacts on our quality of life.” MEIC further stated that “if constructed, the Laurel Generating Station would emit at least 769,706 tons per year of climate-harming greenhouse gasses. This is equivalent to the annual emissions of 167,327 passenger vehicles.”

The Montana DEQ issued the air quality permit to NorthWestern Energy on Sept. 8, 2021, “After significant review and analysis,” said NorthWestern Energy Vice President of Supply and Montana Government Affairs John Hines, who oversees environmental compliance and stewardship. Hines expressed his concerns saying, “This ruling appears to require new criteria to be analyzed and jeopardizes reliable service for our Montana customers during critical times when customer energy demand is high, the coldest nights and the hottest days, typically times when renewable resources are generating little or no energy.  Our air permit was reviewed and approved by the DEQ using standards that have been in effect for many years. ..We will work with the DEQ to determine the path forward.”

MEIC said in its press release, that the DEQ violated the Montana Environmental Policy Act by issuing the permit “without fully evaluating the environmental consequences of plant construction and operation.”

“My business, my family and my home will be directly impacted by NorthWestern’s proposed project. We have raised our concerns every step of the way, and state and local governments keep ignoring us,” said Kasey Felder, a landowner, small business owner and member of the Thiel Road Coalition. “We were worried we would get a ‘Braveheart’ ending to this story.  It’s a relief to know the scales of justice are still in balance, and the little guy can be heard.”

“For too long it’s felt like a David versus Goliath battle. I’m so tired of the government and NorthWestern ignoring us. We live here. We have raised concerns time and time again about the impacts of this plant,” said Carah Ronan, farmer, small business owner and member of Thiel Road Coalition.

John Hines pointed out that NorthWestern Energy relies on the energy market “more than any of our peer energy companies in the region. The region faces an increasing probability of near-term deficits in its energy supply during peak load conditions, and the chance of shortages is expected to grow unless the region invests in new capacity, resources always-available to generate energy in all weather conditions.”

“If it was operating today,” he said, “NorthWestern Energy’s Montana customers could have avoided at least $4.7 million in market purchases from Dec. 20 to 26, 2022 during the Arctic cold front when record low temperatures were set in several areas of Montana.

“The Yellowstone County Generating Station natural gas plant is a critical part of a balanced and affordable portfolio that includes renewables and generation that is available on-demand, 24/7,” said Hines. “A balanced portfolio is essential to support the responsible transition to cleaner generation resources without compromising energy service reliability.”

Although left unidentified, the MEIC press release stated “…lower-cost clean energy resources are available.”

During peak- use NorthWestern Energy needs 1500 megawatts of power. They can generate only 750 megawatts, which forces the utility to go out into the market to purchase as much as 50 percent of the power needed to meet demand. One-third of the power NorthWestern Energy provides to the state is consumed in the Billings area – about 450 megawatts.

As the public demands more “clean energy” from alternative resources, reliance on wind and solar energy is becoming greater, but those energy sources need a dependable back up for “when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine.”

The Laurel site is 36- acres purchased from CHS. The property is adjacent to a NorthWestern Energy sub-station and transmission lines, which are being enlarged to accept the energy that is generated.

The $250 million natural gas plant will generate 175 megawatts of electricity, operating reciprocating internal combustion engines. The Laurel Generation Station is projected to be operational by the winter of 2023-24.