By Evelyn Pyburn

The prolonged search by Commissioners for a solution to meet Yellowstone County’s space needs for future growth will be resolved with the purchase of the Miller Building in downtown Billings. County Commissioners voted two to one, to proceed with purchasing the building following months of due diligence and an appraisal that came in less than expected.
The decision ends considerations of both city and county officials of jointly developing the Stillwater Building into some kind of arrangement for a centralized local governmental facility.
Commissioner Denis Pitman voted against the purchase saying he wanted to continue exploring the possibility of the county remaining in the Stillwater Building and finding a way the county could partner with the city.
The prospects of pursuing a joint tenancy in the Stillwater Building seemed to strengthen with the news from City Administrator Chris Kukulski that the city had a “handshake” agreement on a price for the Stillwater Building of $17 million with owner Joe Holden of WC Commercial. The County currently has a lease agreement for offices on the third floor of the Stillwater Building, which has four years remaining.
County Commissioner John Ostlund pointed out that the $17 million agreement on the Stillwater Building could not be accepted by the county since state law prohibits the county from making a purchase in excess of appraised value, and the appraisal on the Stillwater building was $13.5 million.
Ostlund urged action on the Miller Building because their Memorandum of Understanding for first right of refusal on the property ends July 1, 2021.
On March 2, 2021, the commissioners offered a non-refundable $33,750 to owner, Miller Trois, LLC (Norman Miller) to take the property off the market until July 1, in a vote that Pitman also opposed. Last fall, the Board approved on the consent agent a contract with Cushing Terrell to analyze the suitability of the property for the County’s future needs. The property inspection found that the property would be sufficient to meet the county’s needs.
An appraisal ordered by the county placed a value of $4,375,000 on the Miller Building on May 21, 2021 – – $125,000 less than the county’s offer in the MOU to pay $4.5 million or the appraised value, which ever was less. Ostlund voiced concern about losing the opportunity to purchase the Miller Building which he believes would greatly diminish their options going forward. He said that the building is in very good condition, with new elevators, parking and more than sufficient space to house all county departments, excluding the courts, which would remain in the Courthouse. The inspections and assessments of the building unveiled no issues that would result in uncertainties or contingencies in the proposed purchase.
Pitman urged that the county work with the city and do what is best for the community. “We have other options,” he said, citing the possibility of building next to the jail or near MetraPark or other spaces in the community not necessarily downtown. He said “we could continue to rent or condo or purchase other property. “We need to have an open discussion on what a partnership would look like.” He noted that there are other costs associated with acquiring the Miller Building, such as hiring more maintenance staff. And, with the county purchasing the Miller Building and if the City purchases the Stillwater building that would be taking two buildings off the tax rolls rather than just one, Pitman pointed out.
Commissioner Don Jones said that the county has spent considerable time – since 2018 when they launched their search for more space – exploring all kinds of options, and this is the point to which it has led. Jones also said that he preferred the Miller Building as opposed to the much larger space available with the Stillwater option, since government has a tendency to grow to fill the space it has and he is opposed to unnecessary growth in government. He likened it to “build it and they will come.. but, we will grow.”
He also pointed out that with either option it will be awhile before the county would be needing the space and with the Stillwater that would mean holding an empty shell of a structure while the Miller Building is occupied with renters who would continue paying rent to the county and in essence helping to defray the cost of acquiring the building.
The County’s Finance Director, Kevan Bryan reported that the County has the capability to completely remodel the building for its use as existing leases term out in the Miller Building. He said that the expansion can be accomplished with no tax increase or need for debt on the County’s part.
Bryan said he would advise the commissioners to look at the numbers over the issue of cooperating with the City. He said, “…we respectfully disagree that the decision here boils down to whether we want to share a physical facility with the City of Billings, or that this shows taxpayers that we in local government can work together. Who can oppose us working together?” Both the city and the county seek the same things, he explained, “efficiencies of operations, common purpose and the wise spending of tax dollars. While the thought of a combined administrative facility on the surface has promise, it’s not necessarily a guarantee of any advantage to either governmental entity, or the taxpayers themselves.”
Bryan reminded that the county’s needs are for long-term space for the inevitable growth of the district and justice courts and the departments that work with the courts. The goal is to keep those services located in one building while moving most other county functions other than the Sheriff’s department to a “Yellowstone County Administration Building.”
The Miller Building presents a “very, very long-term solution for the County,” said Bryan. He said the county tried to work out the possibility of purchasing two floors of the Stillwater building, but its owner sought a selling price “well above market value,” which the county “would not and could not entertain.”
In discussions between city officials and county officials, Kukulski urged the county to postpone their decision and to explore the Stillwater option further. Without the county’s interest in partnering in some manner with the city the potential of the Stillwater deal isn’t as promising, pointed out Kukulski and Mayor Bill Cole, both of whom noted that the final decision is up to the City Council. Kukulski said that the matter would be on the City Council agenda on July 12.
In response to a comment that the city ownership would somehow impact the county’s lease, Kukulski said that the city wanted the county to remain. He said that he was sure the city and county could come to some acceptable arrangement in either leasing or condo-ing the floors of the five story building. He did note that the city has its own due- diligence to do on the Stillwater Building in making sure they understand what would be needed to remodel it for city offices, including using the basement for the City Police.
Ostlund said that the county had been attempting to negotiate with Holden for what has come to be years without success and he didn’t want to delay the matter any longer. He further questioned how it would be beneficial to the city to pay more for space than what they would later lease or sell it to the county.
The Miller Building is a six-story, plus basement building, located on 3rd Avenue between 28th and 29th Streets, downtown. It was the former Security Trust & Savings Bank Building.
The Stillwater Building, located at 316 N. 26th, in downtown Billings, is the former James F. Battin Federal Building, which stood vacant for several years until it was purchased for $3.2 million in 2017 by Holden, who has removed asbestos and prepared it to remodel on a build-to-suit basis for future tenants, the first of which was the county two years ago. Holden also built an adjacent parking garage.

Despite a remodeling bid that was $1 million over projections, Big Sky Economic Development (BSED) is moving forward in renovating the former Montana Bank Building in downtown Billings, under Sky Point, to become their headquarters and for the new home of Rock 31 Entrepreneur Center.
Budding entrepreneurs of local start-up businesses and members of BSED leadership took turns last week demolishing an interior wall of the bank building with sledge hammers as part of the “ground breaking” ceremony that marks the end of a three-plus year planning process and the beginning of a new era for the community’s economic development agency.
The $3 –plus million project has been enabled to move forward because of some value engineering recommendations from the architectural firm, Cushing Terrell, and the contractor who won the bid, TW Clark Construction, who whittled away about a half million dollars in cost savings. Most of the balance of the over-bid is expected to be funded through fund raising campaign, directed by Becky Rogers, BSED Director of Operations, who has overseen the unfolding of the project since its inception. The goal is to raise $275,000 between now through May 2022. Rogers said they have already raised $48,000 from various local companies.
Rogers expressed gratitude to Cushing Terrell and TW Clark Construction for concessions that both companies made in helping to reduce costs. She also pitched those assembled inside the former Montana Bank Building to help support the project by making contributions.
While EDA developed a budget for what was expected to cost about $3 million, the bid they received from TW Clark Construction was $4,075,000. TW Clark is a Spokane-based company with Billings’ offices at 609 Charles Street.
Besides providing administrative offices for BSED and its numerous programs and affiliated agencies, upon the completion of the project, which is expected in ten months, it will be home base for start-up businesses and a training center for entrepreneurs. The facility will have training rooms and media, as well as space for production efforts and to facilitate networking opportunities. There will also be office space for lease to start-ups.
Kevan Scharfe, Rock 31 Director of Entrepreneurship, spoke to say, “Our main goal is to make it feel like home for entrepreneurs, and to help them find counseling and a mentor,” as well as easy access to all the different programs available through EDA.
Chairman of the EDA Board of Directors, Paul Neutgens, said “It is so exciting to see the resources the community is bringing to Billings.”
BSED Executive Director Steve Arveschoug underscored the purpose of Rock 31, saying that “we have to feed our strength and one of our strengths is home grown businesses with their passion and dreams.”
Arveschoug also thanked Chris and Mike Nelson, from whom BSED purchased the building, for donating a significant portion of the value of the building and their continued support throughout the project.
The project received a $2.1 million federal grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration in 2019 for the purchase of the building and renovation.

By Evelyn Pyburn

I was pretty young when I first heard the axiom that you cannot legislate morality, which is to say that you cannot force people to believe in something about which they are not intellectually convinced. I have never encountered anything to make me consider that to be untrue.
So it makes sense that the best way to convince people about a preferred approach to life is to persuade them. It is to understand that using force brings about only a façade of change that really achieves nothing except to generate smoldering resentment and the certainty of future violence.
So, why are so many people trying to FORCE others to accept specific ideas and beliefs? What are they thinking? Just because they have a club – most often the force of government — to make others act as though they agree, do they honestly believe they have changed minds? Do they really think they are achieving a societal improvement?
Using force is but to concede that one lacks the ability to address the mind, and more disturbingly it is an admission that they are without moral compunction about using force against others.
Our forefathers believed that it is unjust, barbaric and uncivilized to force individuals against their will. With the insight that force is an injustice that leads to conflict, violence and wars, they crafted a Constitution that established, not just the sovereignty of a nation, but the sovereignty of the individual citizen.
At its core this is what the founding was all about: to advance a process and a means of civil conduct based upon persuasion and recognizing the individual citizen as supreme to any group. It is to understand that a group is but an illusion. It does not exist without its individual constituents, each of which are distinct and unique, and each with a mind as their basic means of survival. To address the mind and abandon the use of force against the innocent individual — that is the aim of the Constitution.
That had never happened before nor since. If it is lost in the United States we may never be able to reclaim such liberty again.
When they speak of the “shot heard round the world,” it was this idea that so rocked the world and continues to do so. And, it is “the very idea of it” that aggravates the would-be tyrants of the day who attempt to utilize every form of deceit, bullying and violence to coerce others to relinquish this liberty – to relinquish their minds.
To the opposition’s everlasting chagrin, they dare not admit that it is still this idea which at core draws so many people to our gates. People from around the world want the individual liberty promised in our Constitution. While it is true that when they get here, they often stand with the progressives’ goal to eliminate individual choice, that is but a bizarre paradox that comes of the deceit of its adversaries – and truth be told it may not be as pervasive as many believe.
The adversaries cannot admit that freedom of choice is what immigrants want, nor dare they admit its amazing triumph in building the most successful country in the world. And, they do not even attempt to dissuade by manner of reason its preference, because it is undeniable that no country or body of people will treat each other with respect and civility unless it comes from the hearts and minds of each. However could one dispute that?
But further, how stupid is it to think that you can physically force someone to change their mind? Think about that! Maybe you can keep them from talking about what is on their minds by physical restraints. Maybe you can put them in prison for writing about it, or acting upon what they think. Yes, there are all kinds of shackles and clubs you can use to coerce other human beings … but you cannot change their minds by employing force. The only way to change a mind is by appealing to it with reason, new ideas or perhaps even emotional appeals. The only alternative is to use a club or the point of a gun to coerce their actions.
Because it is so reasonable, ”the very idea” holds strong, despite full- out assaults from a hundred different fronts.
So in recognizing Independence Day, understand that at its core, this is what it is all about – your personal freedom. And while so many other beneficiaries of this most precious right shun recognition of this holiday in preference to celebrations aimed at dividing our citizens and to further advance misinformation about the true nature of the “very idea”, know that the freedom it holds is a fragile gift which requires above all else that you understand and celebrate it.

By Evelyn Pyburn

As it was for so many restaurant owners, 2020 was a year like no other for Mike and Antonia Craighill, who own Soup & Such in two locations in Billings.
Without the Paycheck Protection Program and a loan program through Big Sky Finance, they would not have made it, they readily concede, with only some tiny bit of worry that they still might falter. That’s a worry that only comes of looking over their shoulder and wondering if it’s possible for the economic impacts to happen once again with a resurgence of the COVID virus.
This month marks the Craighills’ tenth year in business, having started out in a small store front in the Heights. Ten years ago, as tough as the going was for their shoe-string endeavor, they never imagined their tenth year would be even more challenging.
For the Craighills, a pandemic could not have happened at a worse time – not that anyone plans for such a thing, but the timing was about as bad as it could have been. They had just ended a foray into trying to expand their business into Bozeman. They discovered that long-distance management was just too great a drain on effectively managing their existing businesses and took too much time away from family. The failed attempt had exhausted their reserves and they were still in the process of recouping when the pandemic hit.
That they had so many other people depending on them and the success of their business, was the Craighills’ motivation throughout the economic impacts imposed because of COVID-19. And, it was hard. They speak of many a sleepless night. Lying awake with minds racing about how they could make it work.
The Craighills employee 20 people, almost all of whom stuck with them through thick and thin. “We are blessed,” said Antonia.
“It was fight or flight for us,” said Antonia, “We wanted to keep our family and team safe and keep our community safe, and we wanted to survive — we didn’t want to go out of business. It was an emotional roller coaster. We would go to bed exhausted, just from trying to figure out what we were going to do next.”
“We slept on egg shells. Then we would say, ‘ok bring it on’”
One day Antonia said to Mike, “Can we just go for five hours without anything changing, or have a lunchtime without the world changing.”
Mike said, “We didn’t know what the world was going to bring… it felt like the world was ending.”
In a way Mike saw it coming. He had been following the news about what was happening in other countries and started planning what they could do should the need arise. They immediately started doing enhanced cleaning, but the impact descended faster than his planning. Part of that planning was a call to a businessman whose insight he valued, to set an appointment to “pick his brain.” Before the date ever arrived, “the world had changed.” Business closures were imposed and Soup & Such was closed.
Mike had a different conversation with his advisor than what he had intended. It was about how they were going to survive.
They had to close the restaurants for two weeks because they had never offered take-out service before. Things were changing quickly and in no time they became “carry out only.” In order to do that they developed a website where customers could make their orders which staff prepared to be picked up.
Being a buffet style restaurant, Soup & Such was far more vulnerable to the restraints imposed than more traditional style restaurants. Soup & Such, with a downtown location and a Shiloh Crossing location, is a soup and salad buffet with seven kinds of soup made from scratch every day, and 60 items of fresh fruits and vegetables, and four kinds of meats and cheeses. They are open from 10:30 am to 9 pm on weekdays, and 11 am to 7 pm on Saturdays.
Normally patrons build their own salads and serve themselves, but when it became obvious that that wasn’t going to be permissible, the Craighills quickly adapted a system of repositioning the buffet line so staff could prepare a salad and serve it as the customer identified what they wanted. In the beginning they barely had 25 percent of the business that they used to have on a normal day, and yet they were employing just as many people. Since they didn’t need bussers and dishwashers, some of the employees were brought back as delivery drivers.
Every other day Antonia made face masks which at the time were in short supply. Also in short supply were materials used for making the face masks. Antonia encountered a deal at Walmart for aprons, which she bought and quickly made into face masks.
The Craighills also own Velvet Cravings at 225 North Broadway, which was impacted in a different way by the COVID protocols. While the business was temporarily closed and was able to re-open without many restraints, it lost considerable sales because so many large social and entertainment events were cancelled. Sales are just now starting to rebuild as many people who put off weddings and other celebrations are now holding them with something of a vengeance.
Before COVID, the Craighills’ goal had been to get rid of as much debt as soon as possible, they were now desperately needing operating capital. At the onset of COVID restrictions, they had enough capital to carry them through for only two weeks.
While PPP funds were a godsend they couldn’t be spent on supplies, which were needed because in closing the business they gave away most of their inventory which would have otherwise spoiled. And, PPP only covered payroll. That’s where a $15,000 loan from Big Sky Finance at Big Sky Economic Development became a life-saver. They also got a EIDL loan, which Antonia said was a very difficult decision because it was not forgivable and they didn’t want to put their house “on the line.” But, seeing that a vaccine was “right around the corner, there was hope.”
Antonia said that she talked to other business owners who were closing their restaurants because they were afraid of losing their home.
“All this time we had our foot on the gas. We were peddling as fast we could. Working hundreds of hours.” Things are only now starting to return to normal. “We really only now have started to feel that, for sure, we are going to survive.”
The Craighills are no strangers to being able to roll with the punches. When they started their business they were the parents of three very young children, and the children went to work with them every day. The oldest was nine and the youngest six months. Today the oldest child is an engineer and the other two are in high school. All the kids were raised in the business, with ample opportunity to earn spending money, and without doubt having learned what business is all about.
Asked if Soup & Such had been a goal of his, Mike laughed and said not at all. It was Antonia’s life-long dream. Antonia said she wanted “a different version of fast food. Something that was healthier than a typical fast food.” Starting out, while Mike helped in the restaurant, he maintained a “real” job for a while, but when the time came, he discovered he had come to enjoy the restaurant business. “I fell in love with the people, the ownership and the entrepreneurship,” he said.
Mike has come to be known as “The Innovator” in the business.
Antonio’s really great love is baking, and hence they opened Velvet Cravings.
Despite all that they have been through, the Craighills still hold a positive attitude for the future. While they have abandoned the idea of expanding into any distant towns, they might consider opening a location in Laurel. And, said Mike, “I would love to go back to the Heights.”

TC Energy Corporation confirmed that after a comprehensive review of its options, and in consultation with its partner, the Government of Alberta, it has terminated the Keystone XL Pipeline Project.

Construction activities to advance the Project were suspended following the revocation of its Presidential Permit on January 20, 2021. The Company said it will continue to coordinate with regulators, stakeholders and Indigenous groups to meet its environmental and regulatory commitments and ensure a safe termination of and exit from the Project.

Another news report said that the government of Alberta announced that it’s hoping to recover the $1.3 billion in public money the province had invested in the project. How they can do that was not explained, however one Canadian news reported that Premier Jason Kenney called on the Canadian federal government to press the U.S. for compensation as a result of the decision.

The project, which would have been approximately 285 miles, would have passed through six Montana counties Phillips, Valley, McCone, Dawson, Prairie and Fallon.

State and local tax collections in Montana were expected to exceed $65 million annually.

Additionally, an estimated 42,100 jobs with $2 billion in associated earnings throughout the United States would be created, including 3,700 direct construction jobs in Montana garnering approximately $127 million in employment earnings.

It would have had six pump stations in Montana taking Montana petroleum production to market.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality issued Keystone XL a Certificate of Compliance on April 2, 2012, under the Montana Major Facilities Siting Act.

On Inauguration Day, as one of his first acts in office, President Joe Biden made good on his campaign promise about abolishing the fossil fuel energy industry by cancelling the federal government’s permit.

Most recently, Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen filed suit declaring President Biden’s executive order unconstitutional. Twenty-three other states had joined the suit. In addition, the government of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan announced it would file an amicus brief in support of the lawsuit, which argues the president unconstitutionally changed energy policy set by Congress, which is granted sole authority to regulate foreign and interstate commerce.

The Montana Petroleum Association recently said that the pipeline would move approximately 830,000 barrels of crude oil per day from where it is produced in Canada and Montana to a large refining hub near the Gulf Coast and supplement refining capacity in Illinois, ensuring a reliable domestic and global energy source, bolstering U.S. energy independence and global leadership.

Governor Gianforte upon learning of the possibility of the company abandoning the project, made a plea to Senator Jon Tester to attempt to convince the President to reinstate the permit. He said, “… this decision has real and devastating consequences in Montana.” He noted thousands of good-paying American jobs, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to support our local communities and schools, the opportunity to advance America’s green energy infrastructure, and America’s energy security,”

Governor Gianforte wrote, “With its construction terminated, the oil will still reach markets in the U.S. and around the globe. Without a pipeline, though, it will be transported more slowly by trucks and other means, endangering the environment, delaying delivery and making it more expensive for consumers who are struggling to make ends meet amid the pandemic.”

US Representative Matt Rosendale commented, “President Biden owes Montanans an explanation as to why he decided to pull the Keystone XL Pipeline permit. This killed a project that was going to be critical to Montana. The administration has reversed over a decade of planning for our local governments, cut funding for our school systems, and sacrificed the communities that were dependent on revenue from this project to get through the pandemic. We are already seeing the price of Biden’s war on energy independence, and I fear its impact will only get worse.”

“We remain disappointed and frustrated with the circumstances surrounding the Keystone XL project,” Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said in a statement.

Daniel Turner of Center Square wrote recently that cancelling the pipeline “is a gift to someone.” Besides the rail and trucking industry which will now have to move the oil, Turner said it is a gift to US competitors, such as Russian and Venezuela. Turner dismissed fears expressed by environmental groups regarding the risks of pipelines, pointing out that America is ‘crisscrossed with over 2.6 million miles of pipeline.”

US and Canadian environmental groups fought the project since it was first announced in 2008 described its cancellation as a “landmark moment” in the effort to curb the use of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change.

Anthony Swift, director of the Canada Project at Natural Resources Defense Council, was much more jubilant about the decision, saying, “This is a fantastic day for clean water, safe communities and our climate. The era of building fossil fuel pipelines without scrutiny of their potential impact on climate change and on local communities is over. Keystone XL was a terrible idea from the start. It‘s time to accelerate our transition to the clean energy sources that will power a prosperous future.”

The proposed pipeline over the past 15 years passed through several environmental impact studies which always resulted in being granted state and federal approvals, but were then delayed or rejected for political reasons. Former President Barack Obama rejected permits in 2015, an action reversed by former President Donald Trump who allowed construction to move forward.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among those critical of President Biden’s inauguration day cancellation of US approval.

TC Energy’s President and Chief Executive Officer, François Poirier:

We value the strong relationships we’ve built through the development of this Project and the experience we’ve gained. We remain grateful to the many organizations that supported the Project and would have shared in its benefits, including our partners, the Government of Alberta and Natural Law Energy, our customers, pipeline building trade unions, local communities, Indigenous groups, elected officials, landowners, the Government of Canada, contractors and suppliers, industry associations and our employees.

Through the process, we developed meaningful Indigenous equity opportunities and a first-of-its-kind, industry leading plan to operate the pipeline with net-zero emissions throughout its lifecycle. We will continue to identify opportunities to apply this level of ingenuity across our business going forward, including our current evaluation of the potential to power existing U.S. assets with renewable energy.

TC Energy’s infrastructure plays a critical role in powering the North American economy, delivering the energy people need every day, safely and responsibly. The Company has $20 billion in projects, with another $7 billion of projects under development.

by Evelyn Pyburn

While receiving $32 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) may be considered something of a windfall for Yellowstone County, there’s a lot of needs in the county and it goes quickly, according to Yellowstone County Commissioners.

The commissioners and other county officials are in the process of identifying priorities while trying to sort out the state and federal rules about how they can spend the money. Time frames imposed by federal regulations limit substantially their options, but fortunately Yellowstone County had several projects in the planning stages which also happen to qualify as permissible expenditures by ARPA.

County Commissioner Don Jones said that counties without qualified projects already in the planning may not be able to meet the late summer deadline.

Commissioners are working on meeting their own internal deadline of mid-July to determine what projects they want to set as priorities to obligate in spending the first half of the ARPA grant – -$15.6 million—which has already been released to the county. ARPA requires that the monies issued to counties and municipalities  be spent by Dec. 31, 2024

Besides addressing the needs of health and safety, the county must have direct line of authority over any entity or projects to which they direct the ARPA money. Counties and major municipalities have been allotted funds directly, but the state set aside a separate program for “non-entitled units” of government which would typically include many “districts” or local governments serving less than 50,000 people.

Much of the county’s funding will be spent on rebuilding infrastructure and utilities at Metra Park, according to the commissioners, not only because it involves projects for which much of the preliminary work has already been done but because Metra Park and the role it plays in serving the community easily qualifies within the parameters of ARPA for public health and safety.

County officials had already recognized the need to refurbish Metra Park’s almost 100-year old infrastructure and has already had extensive engineering studies and evaluations completed in anticipation of conducting numerous projects, from replacing water and sewer lines to enhancing broadband capacity. Because of that preliminary work all they have to do to launch many of the projects is issue a “request for proposals.”

Metra Park infrastructure projects include such things as water and sewer lines, storm water retainage, electricity – “everything that is under the ground”, including the possibility of expanding Metra Park’s broadband capacity to 5G. 

Expanding broadband capacity requires the installation of fiber optic cabling. Broadband 5G is the newest global wireless standard which delivers higher peak data speeds which can connect “everyone and everything together,” including machines, objects, and devices.

County commissioners are also eyeing the possibility of doing a pre-engineering study in Lockwood to install water and sewer lines in the areas of Johnson Lane and Coulson Road aimed especially at the planned industrial park, the TEDD (Targeted Economic Development District).

The county, under the direction of purchasing agent, James Matteson, has issued requests for qualifications from architects, engineers and consultants, to design, estimate costs and scope of work for Metra Park and for the Lockwood area. Responses for the Lockwood RFQ is June 14 and for Metra Park RFQs, June 28.

Matteson explained that for any large project that involves architects or engineers, in order to select a firm the county typically issues requests for qualificaions (RFQ) which are reviewed by county officials with the top three candidates interviewed, one of which is then selected to assist in planning and getting a project ready for bid.

Jennifer Jones, the county’s assistant finance director, explained that the county commissioners need to have information that the engineers or other consultants will provide in order to “brainstorm,” and figure out what is feasible and what they can “bid out”. “Some things may not be possible,” she said.

The feasible projects will then be “obligated” under the federal guidelines, which means they have to be designed and put out to bid by the end of summer.

Jones said that the requirements of ARPA are different than most federal grant processes in which they are reimbursed when the project is completed. ARPA sends the funds up front with the stipulation that if they are not spent properly they have to be sent back, so the county wants to be very diligent in making sure they comply with the requirements.

“We have to have our ducks in the row so we have been talking about this for three or four months. We don’t want to be in a position that we can’t spend it properly and effectively,” said Jones. “I’ll do quarterly progress reports,” said Jones, upon which the federal government will determine if the county is in compliance and if they are, they will release the balance of the funds to the county in May 2022.

While many people think of Metra Park primarily as an entertainment venue, for the emergency services providers in the community it is home base for all kinds of activities. “We use Metra Park a lot, for more than just entertainment,” said KC Williams, County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator, who sees Metra Park in a very different light, one totally in keeping with the intent of ARPA. In general APRA funds are meant to be spent in manners that fortify the health and welfare of citizens.

But even as far as being an entertainment center there is much to be said about refurbishing the facility to meet that demand. Metra Park houses the largest crowd gatherings in the state,” pointed out Williams, crowds of that size need better access to 911 and for all public safety and public health that use the grounds.

Metra Park is commonly used as a shelter for situations in which citizens are displaced, as was most recently the case when an irrigation ditch was flooding a Billings neighborhood.  Williams noted that the Red Cross frequently directs people to Meta Park who are in need of emergency shelter.

Metra Park was made available by county officials to the medical community as a backup for potential overflow from the hospitals, and provided an easily accessed location where the pubic could get tested for COVID during the pandemic.

It has often been used to accommodate fire fighters and as a point of staging emergency responses. It is  routinely used by emergency service providers for training exercises and a meeting place. “We need better access to public safety data that we constantly rely on,” said Williams.

Conceding up front that he is no expert on what it takes to increase broadband capacity for Metra Park, Williams fully understands the benefits that it would bring. In addition to responding to emergencies, increasing capacity in and around Metra Park’s 189 acres would be a significant benefit in providing a foundation for the technology for surrounding areas.

“One of the limiting factors in Metra Park serving well as backup for the hospitals’ overflow” during the height of COVID hospitalizations, explained Williams, is that medical records are all electronic now and “in order to do it correctly and most effectively we need to have better broadband capacities. When Metra Park has better broadband capabilities and can handle electronic medical records easily then using it as an alternative cite for a hospital will be easier.”

by Evelyn Pyburn

I can still see it as clearly as if it were yesterday. The view from the second floor window of my high school, looking across the sprawling lawn and street, into the gravel parking lot. It was pretty much full of vehicles – mostly rather dusty, very used, older pickups of every make and color, the vehicles of teenage boys.

Standing there looking out the window —which I often did waiting for the after-lunch bell to ring — so common place was one of the things I could see, that I never once thought about it. It was something that if it existed for just one moment today it would generate absolute hysteria. Whatever my 16-year-old mind dwelt upon in those days, it never focused on the fact that in the back of every window of almost every one of those pickups was a gun rack with at least one gun hanging very visibly, for all the world to see. And every bit as amazing was the fact that probably not a single vehicle was locked.

As perilous a situation as one might be inclined to see it today, it is indeed astonishing that I do not recall a single problem ever occurring in school because of the guns or even because of the unlocked vehicles.

The fact is most high school boys either owned a gun or had access to at least one family-owned gun. Never was there any attention, that I can recall, paid to the fact that there were guns on the school grounds or anywhere else. As far as I know there were no school boards making rules about them or protocols in handbooks, but then we didn’t have any handbooks either.

It might have been considered a natural thing for a kid to show off a new gun to a friend, but I cannot recall ever seeing any such interactions nor conversations among the guys about guns, except for the occasional question of “Hey, do you want to go shoot gophers after school?”

If anything very significant had happened one would know, it was a small town where everyone knew most everyone else and not much excitement ever happened.

It was also very common, especially in the summer, to see two or three boys walking out of town toward the hills with guns swung over their shoulders going out to target practice or shoot gophers… although those two things were often considered the same.

Also, I grew up with three brothers and tons of frequently- visiting cousins on the farm, and all through our growing-up years, even though there was a gun rack in the living room with numerous guns and ammunition in a drawer below, and we were often with no adult supervision, never do I recall anyone wanting to fool with the guns. Not that they were model little boys, they simply were never interested.

They all knew how to shoot and what a gun was for. They did enjoy going hunting occasionally but they never viewed the guns as play things. So when I think about what life was like “way back then” I realize that whatever the issue is about when debating whether guns should be on campuses or school grounds, today, it has absolutely nothing to do with guns.

This is not to say I don’t “get” people’s concerns nowadays, it is to say that I realize we are talking about the wrong problem.

What has changed so much that the thought of young people having easy access to guns is alarming when it was never alarming before?

These kids weren’t saints, some were noted trouble-makers, but none of those troubles ever involved guns.

Nothing about guns has changed so we have to be more honest about the real problem. The change is in what we teach our children and the philosophical premises upon which they are raised.

When you think about it like that, the issue is far more terrifying than when you thought it was just about guns.

There’s good news and bad news when it comes to how Montana compares with other states regarding its economic performance.

In the recently released “Rich States, Poor States” study conducted each year by the American Legislative Exchange Council  (ALEC), Montana ranks 15th in economic performance by three basic measures , but as the study projects into the future, Montana ranks a dismal 33rd in terms of the state’s economic outlook (based on 15 variables) —  which while a six point jump over last year, is still in the same range in which the state has hovered for the past 14 years.

The gist of Rich States Poor States 14-years of analysis is that “states that spend less and tax less, experience higher growth rates than states that tax and spend more.”

The state that shines the most is Utah, as it has for seven consecutive years. Other shining stars are Florida, Oklahoma, and Wyoming. Both North and South Dakota are in the top ten.

The state with the worst record is New York, which is only slightly bettered by Vermont, New Jersey, Illinois, Minnesota and California. Oregon and Washington are the only two western states ranked below Montana.

“I don’t think it is any coincidence that Utah has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation, one of the highest upper mobility rates, one of the lowest poverty rates, and in the pandemic this past year we were one of only two states that had increased in employment,” boasted Stewart Adams, President of the Utah Senate, about his state’s economic record. He further noted, “We have seen Medicaid reimbursements go down. We have seen poverty go down, and we have seen upward mobility go up.” And, he added that without a minimum wage law his state is above the federally proposed minimum wage of $15 an hour. He attributed it all to the state’s fiscally restrained tax policies that seem to go hand and hand with high performing states.

“Free markets work because freedom works,” declared Adams.

That is exactly the lesson that the study is hoped to convey, by its authors, Dr. Arthur B. Laffer, a Reagan Economist, and Stephen Moore, FreedomWorks Economist. In a recent discussion with Adams, and with Jonathan Williams, ALEC Chief Economist, they said that they hoped that the study would be seen as the results of 50 laboratories of economic experience. It’s an amazing opportunity to benefit from the experiences of other states, as they pursue different strategies, demonstrating what works and what doesn’t. The puzzle is why so many political leaders doggedly ignore the lessons, often doubling down on policies that make their economies worse.

And, tax rates matter! What people have to pay in taxes, one kind or another, matters when it comes to where they choose to live, work and start a business. In fact, being able to choose where they live and work is predicted to be more the reality now – now, that people have the ability to work remotely.  With that increased freedom, people will make changes that will impact states in a significant way. The results of the 2020 Census demonstrate that most dramatically, as some states lost representatives to other states, as people “voted with the feet.” Laffer said that that he expects to see them voting with their feet faster than ever before as many states double down, while others take advantage of lessons learned.

Laffer quoted Dr. Richard Vedder, an Emeritus Professor of Economics at Ohio University, in saying that “high taxes don’t redistribute income, they redistribute people.”

Montana was noted in their discussion as one of the three states that will likely benefit the most from people seeking quality of life in their moving about. Montana, Utah and Idaho are the fastest growing states, they said and are attracting people “now that physical proximity to their jobs” is less of an issue.

Williams noted that a state without an income tax should also be attractive to remote workers.

Moore predicted “you will see a real divergence in policies in many cases between red states and blue states. Blue states need to start rethinking their policies and processes. A lot of progressive policies are not working in blue states. They are putting themselves in deeper holes .. that is why you have hundreds of billions dollars in bailouts.”

Montana rates a respectable 15th place in terms of its economic performance because in 2020 its gross domestic product was 5 percent, population grew by over 6 percent or by about 50,650 people, and employment growth was the 20th fastest in the nation. These are economic indicators are considered a bell weather since they are readily impacted by legislative policies.

Montana is one of the states that the authors of the study lament as suffering from not taking advantage of the lessons learned by other states.

Montana has some factors working in our favor. Not having a sales tax is one of those factors. States that avoid one of the three most common taxes – sales, property or income – always seem to have an edge in comparison to those states who impose all three. Montana ranks the very best in the nation when it comes to minimizing the impact of sales taxes on citizens.

But in both the other taxing areas, income and property, Montana imposes severe rates with a vengeance that plummets the state right back to the bottom. When it comes to top income tax payers Montana is 32nd, which means that wage earners will fare better in 31 other states than in Montana, with the top marginal personal income tax of 6.9 percent.  In general Montanans pay $18.34 per $1000 in income, ranking it 42nd worst in the nation. And, in other kinds of taxes Montanan’s pay $20.94 per $1000 in income, ranking the state as 39th worst.

Montana ranks 38th in terms of high property taxes, with taxpayers paying $36.38 per $1000 of income.

The State’s most recent changes to tax law in 2019 and 2020 added 15 more cents in taxes per $1000 of income – creating  another dismal ranking of 23rd in comparison to what other states are doing.

Another economic positive for Montana is the State has little debt.  Montana has a debt of 4.5 percent as a share of tax burden, which elevates its ranking to 8th in terms of low debt.

Montana taxpayers also pay a lot of public employees. The number of pubic employees per 10,000 people is 573.1, ranking the state at 39th in the nation.

In terms of liability risks the state is ranked 7th best, and 23rd in terms of its minimum wage at $8.75.

Montana ranks dead last because it is not a Right to Work State, which means employees can be coerced into joining a union.

By Evelyn Pyburn

Many on the Left (Democrats, Progressives, Socialists or whatever term is acceptable) must be quite forlorn nowadays because of how rapidly they are losing ground on multiple fronts— policy and political  strongholds which took them years and decades to establish are being quietly and subtly eroded– with  gun control being at the forefront.

Actually, there are probably some who aren’t forlorn. There are many who are sublimely unaware of what is happening, since it is not readily reported in mainstream media, and with so much censorship of alternative views, the stilted perspective keeps many people in a never-never land.

But, bit by bit. One little report after another, state by state, the losses to the Left mount as state legislatures step up to do what they were always intended to do – protect their citizens from federal overreach.

So it is that 19 states have wiped out almost all gun control measures, returning to a level of citizen ownership and gun possession that hasn’t been seen in a century. The right of citizens to own and carry guns in the US has been strengthened to a point that even the most optimistic gun- right advocates must be astounded.

This and many other liberties are being reclaimed by state legislatures who are exercising their Constitutional powers and authority, as well as reclaiming the rights of their citizens. And they are doing so for a wide range of issues. This is all happening in such a sweeping manner because 38 states are now Red, which in itself has to be seen as a massive repudiation of the progressive agenda.

Their push back has brought forward state laws that have empowered private education, strengthened private property rights, reduced taxes and regulations, unleashed business growth, secured voting processes, fortified law enforcement and challenged legalized abortion. They have also disempowered health departments and local governments, while lifting up the civil liberties of individual citizens to a degree that has surely left many who have noticed, astonished at how quickly and easily it happened once the people and their lawmakers decided to take action.

In just Montana—

— our state legislature has pushed back on federal land seizures through federal monument programs by requiring approval of such efforts by the state legislature, a huge step in protecting private property rights.

—education freedom has been enhanced with increased tax credits for contributions to private school to $200,000.

—the Governor was given more power to appoint judges.

—the power of health officers and unelected bureraucrats was removed.

— the Governor’s power to declare unending emergencies was ended.

—business owners can no longer be subjugated to serve as an extension of law enforcement.

— doctors and dentists may, do business one-on-on with patients, just like a real free market.

—assured that those who vote are eligible to vote.

—and there were also a host of changes in tax law and regulations that unleashed much business and economic activity… the list could go on…

The weight and breadth of the flip flop has to have some Progressives — who were watching in smug satisfaction the orchestrated riots and defunded police, cowed and masked citizens, crumbling economies and generally confident about what they thought they had achieved –  standing in stunned silent. No matter what they thought was their success in seizing power this is most certainly not what they expected.

Of course, the battles are not over, the Left is turning to the only means they have at the moment to fight back – the courts, which remain stacked against the citizens and very pro-government. But, that is not an easy path, even for the Left, because they have to file cases in every state against many aspects of each of hundreds of new laws enacted by the states. 

So while this is no claim to victory it is to hearten anyone who – living in a desert of no honest news reporting – sees only the bad news and haven’t noticed the minimized reports that have pelted us almost daily as state’s have tweaked laws to regain power and restore freedom. This is what we the people can do, but we need to keep it up.

By Evelyn Pyburn

A new law has been passed by the state legislature which prohibits local governments from requiring business owners to act as an extended arm of law enforcement, when ordinances or regulations are too unwieldy for policing and to force compliance through normal law enforcement.

HB-257 was sponsored by Jedediah Hinkle  (R) HD 67. The legislation basically says that municipalities or counties may not compel a private business to deny customers goods or services, nor may local governments take retroactive action against a business for not turning away their customers. 

In introducing his bill to the House, Hinkle said, “…In Gallatin County we have had some of the strictest ordinances” with a devastating impact on business…” many have closed and others are barely hanging on.” He noted that one “hallmark eatery” in Bozeman has closed forever after 35 years in business.

The approach used by health departments across the state, Hinkle likened to “a death by a thousand cuts.” Health departments commandeer private resources to enforce ordinances. Public officials expect that “through fear, threats of revocation of licenses, fines, charges, misdemeanor violations and lawsuits,” business owners will coerce customers and their staffs into compliance. “They use their own tax dollars against them to destroy them in courts,” said Hinkle. The businesses “are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.”

Hinkle likened the practice of requiring businesses to act as an arm of law enforcement to a takings – when government confiscates without just compensation.

One businessman, Randy Chamberlin,

explained to law makers, “We have to walk a fine line…while employees and customers need to feel safe and confident… we can alienate one side or another.”

“I believe it is totally unfair to make businesses be the enforcement

arm of any government policy, ordinance or regulation,” he proclaimed, “Business people should not be subject or penalized if we do not enforce these ordinances and policies that are being put on us.” The situation creates an unfair situation among businesses, he said, because while some “trying to be good citizens and honestly follow the law” are put at a disadvantage to those who “wouldn’t necessarily do that.

Mike Hope, owner of the Rocking R Bar

 in Bozeman, said he got sued by the county because he refused to close his business at 10 pm. Up until then he said that he and his staff had done everything they could to comply with the mandates. He said he was proud of the extent his staff went to, to make sure everyone was safe. Having to close at 10 pm meant his business would not be able to make enough money to keep his staff employed … “it was about my employees and my industry and what it has done to people around us.” Hope said his business is  facing $40,000 in legal costs. “That is probably a month’s worth of wages for four or five employees.”

He said that he is fortunate in that he has been in business long enough that it had the capital to withstand the financial blow, but most businesses would not be able survive a lawsuit. The Rocking R Bar has been in business since 1947 and Hope has owned it since 2000.

His small business confronted “the whole weight of the state government, because all their expert witnesses were … Montana State employees. .. the county attorney had three attorneys working on it… I had one attorney….”

“What is happening to me is what is the fear of my fellow constituents within my industry. They are afraid. And when government operates from a position of fear …that is not a good position ….This was like a sledge hammer that came down on us.”

“I just think we carried this too far. … If I have respect for the person that doesn’t agree with me and I respect the person that does agree with me, that is how we are going to get through this. ..the  market place is going to drive us to make good decisions . ..because if we don’t take care of our customers and our guests we aren’t going to be in business very long.”

“My property taxes paid the salary of the people that were suing me. I didn’t sue them, they sued me. And the reason they chose to sue me … I was told.. is they could fine me criminally but they couldn’t shut me down. The only way they felt they could shut me down was to sue me. .. When we give up our freedoms , we have to really ask ourselves where we want to live and what we want to be. As a business owner I am 100 percent committed to our community … I am only as good as my community so if I am killing off my community, I am not going to last in business. I think we need to put faith in people to make decisions, not unelected bureaucrats, quite honestly.”

“What I really like is that this bill takes away the ability to sue. Most people don’t have the resources to go and make this fight. That is not a fair fight.” Regarding the health department, he said, “They had all the authority in the world and they used it … it needs to be taken away from them.”

Hope also explained it was difficult getting an attorney, because they too are afraid of the power of the government. “I reached out to four different attorneys before I could get one to agree because they were afraid to take the case because of the retribution they would get. That’s scary. Two days before our court hearing, our two expert witnesses backed out because they were afraid of retribution …We were scrambling. We got expert witnesses lined up now, who have a little more back bone, but that is the type of fear that we are up against. That is not what this country is built on.”

Sarah Capp, also a resident of Gallatin County, talked about the impact on her family as customers trying to navigate their way through local businesses who were intimidated into bullying her and her children, two of whom who have hearing impairments. She said that her nine year old, Liam, has a significant hearing loss. But “ …he is an expert lip reader so you can imagine how the last six months have been on him….each day over the last six months has been a battle for our family, a battle that pits us as paying customers against store employees, managers, business owners, restaurant servers and even medical professionals … It has forced me to explain more times than I can count, ‘our family doesn’t wear masks for the sake and safety of our son… who has a hearing loss.”

This they had to do all the time even though Governor Bullock’s mandate specifically said that those who were exempt from wearing masks should not be asked why they were exempt. “You would be amazed at how many people don’t know that and aren’t aware of that medical exemption. Just imagine as a nine- year- old, and you have a medical exemption that has to be pointed out and explained in front of your face over and over again.”

Capp said, “Many employees have been gracious, many employees have rolled their eyes and sneered at us as though we were lying. And a few even denied our medical exemption and asked us to leave.”

“The mask mandates and business restrictions we have in place today are nothing more than wishful thinking of power-hungry county health officials,  many of which don’t have a bit of health education. As an animal science degree major I have more micro biology and chemistry experience than many of the people who sit on county health boards making these rules,” said Capp.

Doug White is a third generation business owner in Flathead County. He said, “Our small business has the highest traffic count in a small area of any business in our area…we serve 800 to 1600 customers a day, through a 2000 square foot store with a single entrance /exit door, making it virtually impossible to comply with COVID -19.”

He said, “Many businesses in our area have been temporarily closed due to their employees testing positive for COVID 19 – and we are just the opposite. But,  still we have been labeled as an egregious offender…in mid-July the health department called and stated that they had three complaints about our failure to enforce the mask mandate.  As for the health board’s rules we got a phone call after the three complaints as we are supposed to.” But the rules say that a business should get another phone call after ten additional complaints and a follow up visit. “None of this ever happened,” said White, “until the phone calls from the media came, making us aware of the state’s intent to sue …”

“I was contacted on my personal cell phone at  9:30 am by the Flathead Beacon asking me for comments and thoughts about being sued by the Bullock administration  They were aware of this suit eight hours before we were even process served. Fortunately for us the lawsuit was eventually dropped, however it cost us more in legal defenses.”

During the course of trying to be the enforcement arm of the state….  one of my employees was threatened by a customer with a side arm, when he asked the patron to please put on a mask. This young man quit as our employee the very next day, stating that he just couldn’t do what we asked  him to do in enforcing this mandate. He has yet to be replaced.

“Additionally my granddaughter received a profanity –laced slur from a disgruntled patron when she asked them to put on a mask. … as you can see … it is literally dangerous to our employees to be the enforcers of these mandates. They neither have the proper training or know-how to deescalate a situation that may arise.  Also, a private business should not be forced to expend its own financial resources to enforce the mandates of these governmental entities, as you can see  even with our efforts to comply we were still sued.”

Maria Wyrock, Bozeman,

testified, “Our county health board has caused us a lot of stress and undo harm. They have become  one of the most feared agencies acting on their own agenda that simply go beyond promoting health. 

Wyrock said that she was part of a public records request from the Gallatin County Health Board regarding the Governor’s mask mandate. While the agency refused to turn over the records and the county attorney “stonewalled,” they were able to obtain the records through a lawsuit that subpoenaed for the information. “A committee is still going through thousands of emails and text messages,” said Wyrock, “but the overall theme uncovered is how the department is not following the same rules they have laid out for Montana. They are complicit in denying people with disability and medical conditions access to private  businesses while they are aware it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the governor’s exemption in the directive.”

An exchange discovered in the missives, “even more shocking,” underscores why HS 257 is “imperative,” Wyrock continued.  Missoula County Commissioners  said that they think masks should be mandated and enforced. “The County Health Officer said she didn’t want to go there” so the county commissioners “instructed their emergency manager to research ways the commissioners can do it without the health officer.”

“This message is a prime example of the county getting involved to pass ordinances that mandate… a level of enforcement that goes beyond the health board and the health officer.”

“Our Gallatin County Health Board and health department created orders and mandates that they knew were not enforceable on a regular citizen. Even our county sheriff has gone on record and states his office will not enforce these mandates. Instead the department crafted ways that ensure that businesses would become the enforcers , however the same businesses are not getting protection from the police or from the sheriff and especially not from the county attorney  to defend their ability to stay open and their ability to access paying customers.”

Brooke Carlson, Choteau,

said that she too had submitted a public records request last summer and began suffering retaliation from the health department. “I was harassed at my job because of my medical exemption and then slandered and shamed publically on social media by those same health officials. I quit my job after the owner grew tired of the harassment by the health department and because of fear they would fine her for honoring my exemption.”

Carlson further stated, “Those same officials attempted to remove my young children from public schools due to their medical exemption, even though the school accepted it. Our only local grocery store was notified by health officials to discriminate against those with medical exemptions, and so they started calling the police to enforce it. I now have to drive an hour to buy my groceries to feed my family at big box stores that aren’t as fearful of health department harassment. Other small businesses in town, many who survive on the revenue from tourists, were harassed by health department officials and intimidated into denying service to the same community members that were capable of sustaining their businesses with their loyalty.

“These two health department officials used that same harassment technique to photograph unmasked families, particularly those with businesses or jobs at stake, in an attempt to scare them into compliance.  These same officials then turned neighbor against neighbor, stating on the department Facebook page that those who are unmasked are purposely spreading the virus and even went as far as to contact local TV news saying that anyone claiming a medical exemption is just making an excuse.

“I have seen firsthand the effect of giving the health department the power to force individuals and businesses into compliance. They have burned every bridge and caused every small business to exist in constant fear that they will get turned in for non-compliance and literally turn neighbor against neighbor because of fear of fines. I cannot work in my town nor buy food for my three small children. Businesses are losing revenue and local support because of threats from the health department and this is money and support they will never earn back.”

Carlson said she spoke with county commissioners –and  “after six month of no response from them … I walked into their office that morning and discovered that the commissioners were only not active on the health department board but they did not know that by law one of them was required to be on the board. They showed up to their first meeting the next day… they were not given the opportunity to vote because the director of the health department also did not know that they were on the board . This means that not only is the county health department harassing private businesses, schools, individuals, violating open meetings laws, they are acting without voting members participation. This also means that those two women who have been harassing our town …have also been spending all the CARES Act money without any board approval.”

Darin Gaub, Helena,

said that he is completely disabled because of breathing problems and has been denied access to private businesses and goods and services by local health officers. “This bill is much needed to curb systemic discrimination that only began once the health department got heavy-handed after masks were made mandatory and not voluntary.” He further said  his wife, who has a business in which she tutors children with special needs, had to resign her position because she could not wear a mask for more than 30 minutes.

Esther Fishbaugh

operates 39 campgrounds in Montana and Wyoming. They dealt with 165,000 people last year and have 40 employees, she said, and they had no employees  contracted COVID 19. “We did lose employees because they were fearful.”

“I wrote compliance plans over and over and over again,” she said, “as all the directives were changed on us. So it was quite a bit of work to comply with ever changing rules… It was hard for us to hire extra employees to meet that demand…  We just could not get the extra help. .. I lost employees from coming back. They were fearful for their health. They were over-worked…  Supplies were interrupted because of the fear that was out there. .. perpetuated by many of our health departments, which… over-hyped.”  Fishbaugh said that instead of being helpful, “our health department is being adversarial and punitive… instead of collaborative…. instead of looking for ways to minimize how many people had to be quarantined…. how many people had to be shut down.”

Nellie Nicol with the Freedom Protection Project

explained that the organization was  created because of the health departments’ “overbearing and unconstitutional mandates thrust upon small businesses.”  She said, “We do not believe the health board should be issuing fines or threatening the revocation of licenses for noncompliance of these mandates .  Many businesses particularly restaurants run on a thin margin. Imposing fines just adds insult to injury during a time many people are trying to feed their families and pay their mortgages. In times of emergencies most businesses cannot afford to hire an attorney to fight a misdemeanor charge or any other retribution the health board sees fit. Fighting criminal charges just adds to the emotional and financial stress of an already highly stressful situation.  These business owners are already losing sleep at night worrying about keeping their employees’ and their families fed with a roof over their heads. These mandates are dividing our communities.”

Nicol continued, “In one instance a small town created a tattle tale line, so that locals could take videos of business owners not enforcing mandates and turn it into the officials. The tattle tale line went as far as to make a list of Republican business owners in town This tattle tale line resulted in businesses being threatened to be fined and fear of closure. In the meantime, business owners are forced to police their customers out of fear that they will be shut down. The business owner and their employees safety is compromised while policing their customers, as you are aware not every customer is willing or able to comply with some of the mandates, putting the business and customer at odds. These mandates force the business to decide whether they should comply with the mandate and turn a non-compliant customer away, or keep their doors open.”

Don Frye owns the Hot Rod Filling Station

in Bozeman. He is a second generation owner of two 50-year restaurant businesses. “I hope to pass these businesses on to my children and keep this legacy alive if the health department and the county board of health do not completely crush the independent bar and restaurant industry.  It is for the future generations that we are here for today, to make sure they do not have to navigate the same path for the next virus or pandemic.

“I have experienced the inconsistent and arbitrary power of the Gallatin County Board of Health at a sickening level this past year. I am forced to turn away 50 percent of my regular customer base and to run business at break even or less. “

Frye said, “In short our local board of health has lightened their work by forcing small businesses to enforce their arbitrary and inconsistent rules.”

Jackie Wahl

is the mother-in-law of a fallen deputy, Jake Almond Jr. She talked about having to cancel a fundraiser softball tournament for his family, “even though we made every concession to comply with safety measures. … They decided to cancel it, but keep in mind that regular softball season went on all year long, with no problem at all, with a lot more teams.”  

Andrew Cetraro

spoke on behalf of the Gallatin County Licensed Beverage Association, which has over 200 members. “Many times these licenses are a huge investment. …they can pay upwards of a million dollars,” said Cetraro, “This bill gives us the protection needed to pay for our investments and daily costs and mortgages.”

Charlotte Snyder

also said that she doesn’t believe the health board should be able to compel a private business to deny a customer entrance to their business or access to the goods and services, which they provide . “In many cases by denying a customer those goods and services they are denying the public access to basic human necessities. The local boards have erroneously turned  business owners into enforcement arms of the government. When you deny a business the ability to sell a good or service to a customer you are robbing that business of the ability to provide financial stability to their employees, themselves and their families.

“A local small business told me that they were reported for the lack of enforcement of the mask mandate. The health department actually told this business owner they need to have someone at the door opening it and telling the people to wear a mask. They are a small business! They certainly cannot afford to hire a person to open a door. These people, enforcing these mandates, do not have to worry about losing their jobs, yet they are the ones telling small businesses to hire people to open doors.  This is beyond ludicrous .. .the health department clearly has no concept on how private businesses operate and survive.”

Dax Cetraro , owner of the Rialto Bar in Helena,

said “COVID 19 has had devastating impact on our small business. We have had to lay off a good portion of our work force … and up until the 10 pm closing we were barely breaking even and we were able to pay the bills. If it wasn’t for the PPP we would have been out of business a long time ago.” But, he continued, “when they kicked us down to 10 pm, 60 percent of our revenue disappeared. So we have been unable to hire more people.

“If I were in the Rocking R’s situation, I would be crushed. Out of business for good. The Rialto has been around in Helena since the 1930s. That would be a tragic thing to be put out of business because of litigation against something like that … All we want to do as small business people is work. I don’t want the handouts. I don’t want the PPP money. I want to make a living, allow my staff to make a living, earn tips and take care of our guests .. the most horrifying thing in this whole epidemic is this power the boards of health have right now. I am more worried about that than COVID 19.

Franz Glaus, Four Corners

 near Bozeman, said, “We are speaking about the abuse of power. .. the list is long of those who were seriously compromised last year. … We have seen where some Orwellian shared values are ginned up and introduced and rise above the Constitution… in Hunger Games fashion we are muzzled before the community. We are quarantined for Grandma. Our business is decreed non-essential for the greater good. The aged die alone to flatten the curve. This bill 257 and others like it .. are the tools and materials we wish to use to fix some leaks in the roof of state, that shelters us from the occasional deluge of petty tyrants.”

Ken Miller, Laurel, 

testified that as a business owner and property owner with tenants he and his wife have been greatly affected. “We have learned a lot,” he said, “but in most cases most of these things have caused more harm than good… the bottom line is the free enterprise is always the best approach to handle the concerns.”

Raven Dighans

 had only opened her business in December 2019. “We were hopeful…we  continued to adjust our practices so our customers would feel safe .. but then mandates started to come down …with those mandates came a distinct fear that if we as private business owners did not enforce the rules being dictated by the health department there would be retributive action taken against us. I distinctly remember lying awake in my bed at night fretting how we could possibly recover financially if our license was removed or if we received a huge fine or were sued because somebody walked through our door without a mask. The mandates … pitted neighbor against neighbor and incited a witch hunt for businesses  Not only has my business been reported to the health department three times because the wording on our required signage did not dictate the local mandate, letter for letter, I have also been visited by our County COVID Inspector. Yes, that is a thing, if you are not familiar.  Upon entrance into my shop, without identifying herself, the COVID Inspector demanded to know if everyone in the room was from the same family. With that the very few customers that I had had for the day, left.

“This particular representative of the county continued on to inspect me to make sure I was following … not the health regulations that determine the continuation of my license but instead the COVID guidelines dictated by the county health department .

“In speaking with other private business owners who received the same kind of inspection from the county inspector, it became increasingly clear that we all felt that these visits were designed to undermine us as private business owners and to drive home the idea of the seriousness of the retributive action that could take place if we do not concede to and enforce the county mandates.”

Carolyn Truscott

said,  “In my opinion taking steps to limit contact between people is too broad to be comfortable with …limiting contact between people is impossible to implement without a police state and oppression of our right to assemble  How far would local health officers go to limit contact requiring masks , six foot distancing, shorter business hours and reduce business capacity? We see how all of those steps to limit contact backfired and killed businesses and those steps restricted our ability to patronize these businesses.” She called it an “over reaction to a virus”… “as if it were a nuclear meltdown. We can’t cry wolf every time the common cold or flu comes to town.”

Conrad Everetts

represented a campground called Mountain Bike City, west of Helena, said that if HB257 didn’t pass “We are not opening this year.” He said the county’s deference to health officers is based  on three “false premises”: 1.) government health experts are a not political. 2.) that government health experts are competent. 3.) that government health experts are benevolent.  “We spent the last year out-sourcing our politics and allowing our livelihoods to be destroyed by bureaucrats who heretofore were trusted mainly with insuring refrigerators  and tap water were a certain temperature …”

Cindi Hamilton

said, “I am here as a previous business owner. Our business was completely destroyed by the egos of local government agencies. We probably spent a $100,000 trying to save the business but we were not able to. .. I used to support local government. At this point local government has become a power drunk tyranny. What is going on is destroying our lives. Government is supposed to make our lives better.”

Heather Richards of Gallatin County said that life has been “like prison… it is stressful.. we are not thinking about what is happing to the future of our children. We are being muzzled. Our identity is being taken away.” She relayed that “there have been countless times in stores that I have been harassed by total strangers ..  we are being forced by unelected bureaucrats to do things that should not be happening…  I have so much anxiety going into a store today that I have had to take my money away from Montana to shop on- line because I’m fearful of going out in my own town …where I have been for 25 years – How did we get here?”

Gabe Lynn Johnson, Great Falls,

spoke that ”we have lost our freedom. She quoted a holocaust survivor who said that “memories are not the key to the past but to the future.”

Barbara Friend told about what happened when she asked some teenagers at a public pool why they were taking her temperature and that of her children. She was in the pool with her children when a policeman arrived and pulled her out of the pool to question her after the pool workers reported her. She said, “All this ‘ratting out’ has made little teenagers into brown shirts.”

Her statement elicited a response from a legislator on the committee who was indignant, explaining that “brown shirts” were Nazi storm troopers” and “it is wholly unacceptable to throw around insults like that.”

Bryan Miller, Flathead County,

 told a similar story about taking his three children to swim lessons. He said he had an exemption from wearing a mask. The police came, took him into custody and took him to jail. His wife had to come to retrieve the children and bail him out of jail.

Cheryl Tuscan commented that the issue of mandates “have been very divisive and have torn the fabric of our society.” She was astonished about “snitch lines” made available for people to report non-compliance, and of the “undercover health department employees” visiting bars and restaurants to  monitor obedience. “Businesses are afraid… and customers are afraid. We should be able to make informed decisions and NEVER, EVER TOLERATE censorship of the medical community.”

Donna Elford, Helena,

 brought a petition with 69 signatures. She reported that “because of the over reach of the health department the oldest farm market in the state has been destroyed. . . little mom and pops,  little farmers who brought produce were forced to do the mask mandate when there wasn’t even a mandate and so they killed the market.”

Eileen Guthrie said, “No health board or government  should require a business to discriminate. Last Saturday I went to a local store, when I walked in the clerk asked me about a mask …I said no. Privacy laws say they are not to ask you about all your health background… I proceeded through the store. A large man, very tall, came up to me and said I needed to wear a mask . I said no. I proceeded through the store. He came up to me again to make sure I understood that without a mask they would not sell me anything. I said that was fine I was checking prices… As I went through the store he came to me a third time to make sure I knew he would not sell me anything if I did not wear a mask. The store was not crowded. There were no lines at the checkout. There was plenty of room for distancing. It was clear discrimination  and I am guessing it is fear of the health boards that these private employees felt necessary to discriminate against me.

Opponents to the legislation who testified were considerably fewer and tended to represent entities of government or their professional organizations. They voiced concern that HB257 went too far in that it seems to allow businesses to ignore the specific regulations governing how they operate. They seemed not to understand that the issue was about business people being required to police the compliance of others. No opponent addressed that issue nor did they attempt to explain  reports of aggressive and abusive actions of those from government agencies. They had no explanations nor apologies.

Jim Murphy with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services testified that he believed the legislation will lead to confusion. He also said, “The bill limits the ability to take action against some of the businesses that they may regulate. Some of the regulation is very broad . .. and very little action could be taken to address a very valid health concern. .. it may lead to many unintended  consequences.”

Tim Burton, Executive Director for the Montana League of Cities and Towns, and Kelly Lynch, also with the organization, said that they represent 127 municipalities in Montana and urged for postponing action. Burton said, “I don’t think now is the time to re-invent our public health system in the middle of a pandemic.” He said that he understands the economic impact, but the status quo should remain until after it ends, when they can have “an after disaster assessment. Where we can sit down and thoroughly review what worked and what didn’t work and what is a better practice.”

Emily Coyle with the Montana Association of Health Care Purchasers, said “We are concerned with the potential negative unintended consequences of HB257. She said they are opposed to any changes in the state that could hamper our health and recovery …now is not the time to make such drastic changes. It would over burden local boards and governing bodies.

Lance Richards was an opponent who called in to say that individuals have a responsibility to others. He said, “I believe this isn’t the last of have a responsibility  and obligation to oppose the passage of this bill for future generations.”

Michael Biggins, Seeley Lake,

 said it was good to be able to “pursue action against these businesses” and see them fall into compliance and “make life safer for everyone.”

Hinkle said that he would make an amendment that would make clear that the intent of the legislation is