While survey respondents in Yellowstone County indicate that they are doing more physical exercise and they believe their mental health remains good, if not better, a survey about the overall health of residents indicates there remains a need for more mental health services and that substance abuse is an escalating problem.

In fact, most aspects of the health of Yellowstone County residents have worsened since the last Yellowstone County Community Health Needs Assessment (CHNA), according to local health officials who reported, at a press conference, on the results of their most recent study.

Residents have trouble getting access to grocery stores in order to obtain healthy foods, which was identified as a reason for declines in healthy eating and over-weight issues. Also a contributing factor, according to the health experts, is a lack of trails and access to other options for physical exercise.

Being unable to access health care services is another detriment to good health, according to several speakers at the press conference, which included Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton, Montana St. Vincent Healthcare President Jennifer Alderfer, Billings Clinic Interim CEO Clint Seger and Rehabilitation Hospital of Montana CEO Jennifer Graves.

There were positive trends reflected in the survey, including the fact that more people reported having health insurance.

The CHNA survey has been conducted every three years since 2006. The number of respondents to questions posed in the survey were 400, which County Health Officer Felton said is a statistically valid sample for a community of this size, generating a margin of error of less than five percent. For the first time the survey accommodated for “health disparities by race/ethnicity” by providing a web-based survey option “among historically underrepresented groups by partnering with Community Health Workers.”

The declining health issues are most problematic for the lower income and those of minority ethnicity. An Executive Summary provided by the presenters states that residents may experience worse health outcomes because of “Differences in income, educational attainment and quality, neighborhood quality, healthcare access, and social experiences…”

The Executive Summary focused on “perceived discrimination” by residents of Yellowstone County toward groups in deference to race, age, gender, sexual orientation, etc. as a significant contributing factor to poor health. Calling the results “sobering,” the summary stated, “19% of residents strongly agree that Yellowstone County is welcoming to all races and ethnicities.” It also concluded, “People of color are significantly more likely than the general population to report being treated with less courtesy or respect, as less intelligent, and as a potential danger, and receive poorer service.”

It’s a community problem, contended the speakers, who represent a collaboration of health care institutions in the county, often identified as The Alliance, through which numerous programs have been launched in the past, since 1994, to help mitigate priority needs in the community. The data that has been gathered will be used to identify priorities and to forge programs that will be carried forward in the community through the Healthy by Design Coalition.

The survey included questions regarding COVID -19 and the accompanying mandates and economic impacts. With businesses forced to close and quarantines keeping workers at home, 23 percent of county residents say they were financially impacted by lost employment, wages, hours, or health insurance. Because of the uncertainties many – 15 percent —said they avoided medical care.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, 22.6 percent of residents said a household member lost a job, hours, wages or health insurance. Other income or wealth issues emerged among 16 percent of respondents who said they worry each month about paying their rent or mortgage. And, also 16 percent said they do not have cash on hand to cover a $400 emergency expense.

Homelessness was also identified as negatively impacting health.

Part of the problems associated with increased mental health needs is associated with the “stigma” of mental health issues that keep people from talking about them – stigmas not associated with most other health care issues. Almost a fourth of the respondents said they have considered suicide at some point in their lifetime. In Yellowstone County, 26 people per 100,000 people commit suicide each year.

Substance abuse and safety are also contributing factors with 23 percent of residents drinking excessively and that worsening over time; 24 percent have experienced intimate partner violence, which is higher than the national average.

Deaths caused by unintentional injuries in Yellowstone County have nearly doubled in the past decade.

It was also pointed out that 30 percent of resident have an unlocked firearm at home or in their vehicle, which was said to be higher than in 2020. Despite this, said the survey, 85 percent of the residents feel safe walking alone in their neighborhood.

The summary also quoted a “community leader,” who stated that “Billings is Montana’s largest city and has the largest health care providers. Healthcare drives the Billings economy. Yet, Billings has a very hard time recruiting and retaining physicians. We must ask why. The community needs to change, or this problem will continue and will become a larger problem. Over the last three years, I have seen five doctors, four of them left Billings.”

The priorities of Yellowstone County were described as “areas of opportunity,” and include mental health support, services for substance misuse and safety (which includes falls, vehicle accidents and overdoses), better access to healthcare, and more physical activity and healthier eating. Health community leaders will analyze the priorities during 2023 to develop the next Community Health Implementation Plan.

Among other quotes in the summary reflecting various points of view were:

— “Chronic health issues are among the top 3 root causes of homelessness locally, according to a 2020 analysis by the Continuum of Care. This problem as a public health issue was exemplified by COVID-19.” –Social Service Provider

— “Billings is a small community. It is hard to form healthy relationships in the recovery process. There is a lack of services to meet the need. There is a lack of workforce to meet the need. Consuming alcohol is too culturally acceptable in Montana.” – Community Leader

—A large number of fast food or quick food restaurants are prevalent in the community. Affordable family style restaurants are limited, especially in the Heights. There are a lot of trails but not all connected. Limited option for non-trail walking exercise, such as Indoor pools, Frisbee golf, pickle ball, ice skating, and safe bike paths are limited. Free nutrition counseling would help as many do not want to pursue fad diets but would like inexpensive non-stigmatizing help.” – Public Health Representative.

Early this month, Governor Greg Gianforte spotlighted his pro-family, pro-business tax relief agenda in a press conference at the State Capitol.

“All of our tax proposals are rooted in a simple philosophy: hardworking Montanans should keep more of what they earn,” Governor Gianforte said. “We’re ready to give Montanans $1 billion in tax relief, and we look forward to working with the legislature to do it. Now, it’s time to get to work and get it done.”

During the press conference, the governor highlighted elements of his Budget for Montana Families, which provides Montanans with $1 billion in property and income tax relief, the largest tax cut in Montana history.

“Hardworking Montanans need tax relief now and without delay,” Gov. Gianforte said. “Our budget is built for them – hardworking Montanans who make our state stronger and enrich our communities. Our budget is for the farmers and ranchers, teachers and law enforcement, small business owners, seniors, and all our hardworking people – those who make Montana the Last Best Place.”

The governor’s budget provides $500 million in property tax relief for Montanans for their primary residence, with a $1,000 property tax rebate in both 2023 and 2024.

“We can make a difference for the retired couple in the Flathead who, because they can’t afford their rising property taxes, are thinking about selling the home they raised their kids in,” Gov. Gianforte said. “Let’s provide them with $2,000 in property tax relief over the next two years.”

Recognizing the overwhelming bulk of property taxes go to local government, the governor has also called for property tax reforms, including greater transparency and accountability in local government spending, an option to pay property taxes monthly, and greater fiscal responsibility from local governments.

To make Montana more competitive and help Montanans keep more of what they earn, the governor’s budget reduces the income tax rate most Montanans pay from 6.5% to 5.9% and substantially increases the state’s earned income tax credit. When the governor took office in 2021, the top income tax rate was 6.9%.

To support hardworking families, the governor’s budget also provides families with a $1,200 child tax credit for children under six years of age, as well as a $5,000 adoption tax credit to make it easier for Montanans to open their homes to children.

“Family is the foundation of our society. We should do everything we can to make families stronger,” the governor continued. “Let’s provide families with a $1,200 child tax credit to help them raise their kids and pay for food, clothes, child care and health care.”

The governor’s budget cuts taxes for Montana’s small business owners, family farmers, and family ranchers by expanding the business equipment tax exemption from $300,000 to $1 million. Taken with similar reforms from 2021, the measure eliminates the business equipment tax burden for more than 5,000 small businesses, farms, and ranches.

“Our proposed tax relief will support small business owners as well as family farmers and ranchers,” the governor said. “They are the backbone of our economy, create jobs and opportunity for Montanans in every corner of the state, and make our families and communities stronger. Let’s provide them with tax relief by further reforming the business equipment tax.”

Under Governor Gianforte’s leadership, more Montanans are working than ever before and Montanans created a record number of new businesses in 2022, which follows a year of record-breaking business creation in the governor’s first year in office.

Over time, issues and concerns have been brewing regarding what is commonly referred to as “sober living” residences. With some 37 such facilities located in Billings  – more than any other Montana city –  concerns have grown right along with their increasing number. It is hoped, proposed legislation will deal with the problems.

“Sober living” houses offer a structured environment, for people in recovery who need a safe and substance-free place to live.  They are also commonly known as recovery homes or recovery residences. They do not provide treatment, but a safe, stable place in which to live. In Montana, the state government helps to pay the rent at $500 a month for three months, for those who have been released from correctional facilities, which usually comprise the majority of recovery house residents.

Others in need of a safe and stable place to live may also be referred to a recovery facility and in some cases a facility may specialize in offering shelter for specific categories of individuals, such as mothers with children.

The neighborhoods in which the residences are located often encounter problems— if not by the sheer number of people consuming available parking spaces, to the lack of supervision at a facility, or failure to notify supervising law enforcement officers if a parolee is ejected from a house.

SB-94 has been introduced in the state legislature aimed at tightening up the rules on “Sober Living” residences, which have been operating with very little oversight.  Primary sponsor of the bill is Senator Barry Usher, Billings, who is a member of the Criminal Justice Oversight Council and heads the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. Also on the committee and a member of the Council, is Kathy Kelker, Billings, who also co-sponsors of the legislation.

Scott Twito, Yellowstone County Attorney, is also a member of the Criminal Justice Oversight Council. As someone who deals with issues of parole violations and recidivism of criminals, Twito believes that without any oversight, a sober living house increases the likelihood that those on probation or parole will reoffend.

The only requirement imposed on a recovery residence, by any entity of government, is to have a business license from the city. There are HUD recommendations that any residence should have only two people to a bedroom but that is in no way monitored.

While Twito understands and appreciates the benefits recovery residences can provide, he has also seen how the poorly-managed facilities can impair any progress an individual might make by putting them into a facility that does not restrict the presence of alcohol and drugs, and with other residents who may be pushing those things.

Billings has experienced an “incredible increase” in the number of sober living homes, points out Twito. The number of houses in Billings has been steadily increasing since 2019.   The next largest number of sober living houses is in Helena, with six.

Twito said that he has heard discussions on the Council and from other state leaders, that places like Missoula and Bozeman don’t have as many residences because they “really pushed against them and did not facilitate their establishment.”

Given the limited requirements on a residence, and a $500 per bed incentive, there is inducement to crowd as many beds into a facility as possible. It has been reported that some owners have put as many as 15 “cots” in a basement.

 The DOC has spent almost $1 million in rent subsidies on the program.

It is also likely that because Billings is a hub for mental health and other treatment programs, that many people in the state who need help, come to Billings.

Twito points out that several owners operate more than one facility. Three owners account for half the residences in Billings.

Among complaints that have been raised about the presence of “sober living” houses is that there is no process of letting the public  know they are being opened in their neighborhoods or what they bring to the neighborhood. The facilities may be housing violent offenders, people on parole for homicide, or convicted rapists.

City planning officials have pointed out that the residents are viewed no differently than any single-family residence. They are not considered boarding houses. Under law the city is not allowed to discriminate, based upon age, disability or handicap, in how they regulate.

Encouraging the implementation of the new law are Richard and Terri Todd, who started one of the first “sober living” homes in Billings, and today oversee four such homes. They, too, are perplexed about how some of the homes function. “What was once an asset to the community is becoming a liability,” said Richard.

The Todds are urging that a “sober living home” be certified with a national organization and to meet their protocols and guidelines.

“Not all sober living homes are really sober living,” said Richard. Many are more like a “work camp.” “There is no structure…without structure residents are likely to go back to drinking and using drugs and have to be removed.”

Both Todds have had their own struggles and have been in prison themselves. It was through their recovery and personal experiences that they recognized what individuals need to successfully reclaim their lives. The Todds say they recognized that “there was a time when it became important that people have a safe place so they can put their recovery first and to help themselves.”

And, they say, recovery “takes someone who can relate to them.”

The Todds started their first “sober living” home in Billings in 2016. Their four residences operate under a non-profit called Ignatius Sober Living. Although they are not affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous, the Todds’ residences follow the 12 -step emersion program.

The couple quickly learned that they needed help and joined a national organization to become certified. The organization provides direction and training and regular conferences, which they attend, as do the managers in each of the homes.

“If we are not operating within the guidelines, the members have a place to go to report it,” said Terri. Historically, “if you look into ‘sober living’ there has been some horrific things that have happened to members.” To be certified by a national organization protects the members as much as the home owners.

Recovery residences have gained a footing in the country as an effective means to recovery because when properly administered and supervised, they work! Studies have shown that recovering individuals are less likely to relapse when living in a recovery residence.

“Often family and friends want to help,” said Richard, “but they don’t know how.”

A “sober living” residence offers support and structure that a family cannot give, no matter how much they want to help. “In sober living there is a thin line between helping and enabling,” said Richard.

Citing reports of city law enforcement that claim that there is a group of less than a hundred people in Billings who consume $18 million of city resources because of their recidivism, Terri said that through their recovery houses and treatment at places like Rimrock Foundation, she personally has seen seven of the individuals on that list break free and regain their lives.

Over the seven years that the Todds have been operating, they estimate that about 2500 people have passed through their homes – some for only a few days and others as long as three years.

In 2019, a study done by the National Institute of Health examined the net benefit of recovery residences and determined that there was a gain of $29,000 to the community, every six months, for each recovery resident, because “they are not utilizing services at such a rapid pace,” said Terri.

“We have been super blessed. We have had people who have started their own businesses and come back to hire others from their residence,” said Terri. “Our whole goal is no one has to be alone. They can come back here at any time.”

In the “sober living” residences the Todds operate, there are strict protocols by which the residents must abide. “We operate as a large family  — every one contributes to the house.”

The goal is for each individual to be self-supporting in six weeks. “We have to help them through road blocks such as getting IDs, etc.”

 “We work with them on basic life skills…stuff others take for granted. We teach them a work ethic and give them the tools to get themselves out of the position they are in.”

In their “sober living” households, of which there are typically about 12 members, the focus is on creating a family unit. There are requirements to attend a meeting of household members once a week, and to have a meal together once a week. There are curfews and the houses are open for visits from family or probation officers, with whom they communicate immediately should someone be evicted.

Residents must have a job or be engaged in trying to obtain one, an endeavor in which supervisors assist by teaching them how to do it.

Richard points out that these are people who have been “takers” all their lives, and they have to learn how to be part of a community. Besides becoming employed they are encouraged to volunteer in the community.

The Todds have been able to keep conflicts with the neighbors to a minimum by communicating with them and letting them know how to contact them if there is a problem.  They do not allow any sex offenders in their homes because they do not want their neighbors to have to worry about their children.

The proposed legislation basically requires that recovery residences prohibit certain activities, maintain a registry of residents, and be certified by a qualifying organization in order to get vouchers and transitional assistance funding from the Department of Corrections. If passed the legislation would become law on October 1, 2023.

The legislation recognizes that such facilities can provide a healthy and sober living environment that helps those, with substance use disorders, achieve and maintain sobriety.

If passed the new law would require that a recovery residence register with the Department of Public Health and Human Services. They may also seek certification from a certifying organization of which there are several nationally, such as Oxford Houses, National Alliance for Recovery Residences, or Nuway.

The new law requires that a facility provide administrative oversight, quality standards and policies and protocols for its residents.

The recovery residence may not limit a resident’s duration of stay to an arbitrary or fixed amount of time. A resident’s length of stay is to be determined by their needs and progress and willingness to abide by protocols.

Responsibilities in overseeing the recovery residences are also assigned to the Department of Health and Human Services and to the Department of Corrections, including the provision of rent vouchers or transitional recovery funds for rent.

By Evelyn Pyburn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Evelyn Pyburn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Evelyn Pyburn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Evelyn Pyburn

No. No. No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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