From Center Square

Earning a salary of $100,000 a year is a major financial milestone for many Americans. The good news is that with steadily rising wages and increasing demand for skilled jobs, the goal of earning a six-figure salary is more attainable than ever before.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that the percentage of individuals with a total income of $100,000 or more per year (in 2018 dollars) has increased dramatically. While only 3.5 percent of earners in 1980 had the equivalent of a six-figure salary, that number rose to over 11 percent in 2018. This upward trend closely follows the trend in mean individual income over the same period. Nationwide, the mean annual income was $50,413 in 2018 for all individuals ages 15 and over.

The share of high-paying jobs is expected to increase significantly over the next 10 years, especially due to increased demand in the healthcare, management, and technology industries. The average projected employment growth rate across all occupations for the period 2018-2028 is 5.2 percent, but occupations with a mean annual pay of $100,000 or more are expected to increase twice as fast, at almost 10 percent. High-paying healthcare jobs, in particular, will expand rapidly as an aging population requires increased medical care.

Jobs that are most frequently attaining this goal are CEO’s, college health specialties teachers,  Health Specialties Teachers, marketing managers, construction managers, administrative services managers, pharmacists, medical and health services managers, sales managers, computer and information systems managers, financial managers, lawyers, physicians and surgeons, software developers and programmers, general and operations managers.

When it comes to how much income taxes Montana collects per capita, it ranks 24th highest in the nation collecting $ 1,119 for the most recent year in which there is data.

The individual income tax is one of the most significant sources of revenue for state and local governments, states The Tax Foundation.

In fiscal year 2017, individual income taxes generated 23.3 percent of state and local tax collections, right behind general sales taxes (23.6 percent).

On average, state and local governments collected $1,198 per capita in individual income taxes, but collections varied widely from state to state, a function of both rate structures and income distributions, with higher-income states generating significantly more revenue per capita whether they have a high graduated rate system, like California, or a modest flat-rate income tax like Massachusetts.

New York ($2,877), the District of Columbia ($2,815), Maryland ($2,390), Connecticut ($2,227), Massachusetts ($2,145), and California ($2,137) came in with the top five collections per capita. Tennessee ($37) and New Hampshire ($49) tax investment income but not wage income, making them the states with the lowest individual income tax collections per capita. Of the states that tax wage income, the lowest collections per capita in fiscal year 2017 can be found in North Dakota ($423), Arizona ($489), Mississippi ($614), Louisiana ($632), and New Mexico ($640).

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), along with the Justice Department, announced the release of the Butte Priority Soils Operable Unit (BPSOU) consent decree.  This document provides the framework for the continued cleanup of mining-related contamination to protect public health and the environment in Butte and Walkerville, Montana. 

The consent decree requires Atlantic Richfield to undertake or finance over $150 million in cleanup actions, provide financial assurances for future cleanup actions, and provide enhanced community benefits through the implementation of end land use plans along the Silver Bow Creek Corridor.

Additionally, EPA Region 8 is releasing an amendment to the 2006 Record of Decision for the BPSOU Operable Unit in this matter that will expand cleanup efforts. The amendment will require the removal of contaminated tailings at the Northside and Diggings East Tailings areas and contaminated sediment and additional floodplain contamination from Silver Bow and Blacktail Creeks.  The amendment will also require the treatment of more contaminated stormwater before it flows into the creeks, and the capture and treatment additional contaminated groundwater.  Once executed by the parties and entered by the Court, the consent decree will implement this amended remedy.

The release of the consent decree will provide the commissioners of Butte Silver Bow County – who must approve the document before it can be submitted to the court – an opportunity to consider the document in a public forum.  This process allows Butte Silver Bow County to inform and educate the public and the county commissioners about the content of the consent decree. Once that process concludes, the county commissioners will vote on whether to approve the document.

Once all consent decree signatures are obtained, the consent decree documents will be lodged with the federal district court of Montana.  The Justice Department will publish a formal notice in the Federal Register, stating that the department is accepting public comment on the document for a period of thirty days from the date the notice is published.  Under State law, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality is also required to hold a public comment period on the consent decree, which will run concurrently.

While the public comment period will not start until after the consent decree is lodged with the court, EPA, the state, Butte Silver Bow County, and Atlantic Richfield have posted the document on their websites, and paper copies will be made available at the Montana Tech Library (1300 W. Park St.) and Citizens Technical Environmental Committee (27 W. Park St.) for public review at

What does Home Science Tools have in common with Billings Flying Service? What does Heights Eyecare have in common with Montana Peterbilt?

All are among the 21 businesses in Yellowstone County that have received tax abatements to encourage the expansion and growth of their businesses. In doing so they have invested a total of $480 million in capital improvements and new construction, and created 25 new jobs between 2017 and 2018, which have total payrolls of $153 million.

The list includes the tax abatements granted to CHS Refinery in Laurel and Phillips 66 Refinery, which tend to distort what the economic development tool does for Yellowstone County, explained Patrick Klugman, Senior Project Manager for Big Sky Economic Development, who oversees the program. Leaving those two companies out of the totals gives a more realistic picture of the impact of the program.

All of the other 19 companies experienced payroll increases in 2018, said Klugman. They had a payroll total of $106,228,797.

Tax savings in 2018 for the 19 companies was $373,905. Including the refineries, tax savings was $5,265,000.

Last week, Klugman highlighted Home Science Tools in making a report about the tax abatement programs to Yellowstone County Commissioners. The company celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. The company sells, through an on-line website, science educational tools all over the world. Frank Schaner, President, said, “The property tax abatement program has contributed in part to our success by reducing the risk of establishing a permanent place of business operation and freeing up funds for future growth.” He said that since 2006 the company’s annual payroll has increased $870,000 or 2.4 times.

Also, highlighted was Billings Flying Service. Since 2018 the company has added 18 new full time jobs. It had a $2.5 million payroll increase from 2017-18, and currently employs 84 full-time and part –time employees.

Say co-owners, Al, Gary and Bridger Blain, “There is a reason ‘Billings’ is painted on the side of our helicopters. Billings is our home. The tax abatement process helped ensure that our operations center would stay here, and the tax savings helped our company attract top talent to make Billings their home as well. We are forever grateful for the community / businesses partnership championed by so many in Yellowstone County.”

The programs were established by the State of Montana in 1988.

By Evelyn Pyburn

If it seems that there have been fewer wildland fires in southeastern Montana, over the past few years, that is indeed the case. And, the reason could be the results of a new approach to firefighting that is being explored by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC).  It’s an idea devised by Derek Yeager, DNRC Southern Area Fire Program Manager and Montana Fire Warden.

Formerly a member of “hot shot crews” himself, after the devastating fire season of 2012, Yeager started thinking “Something has to change. We have to do it better.”

2012 was a particularly bad fire year.  The Southern Area experienced over 1,000 wildland fires exceeding the 5-year average of 704 a year. The year was dry, with lots of ignition sources, and resources were slim. . Large fires burned homes, property, natural resources like pasture land, destroyed fences, and forced people to evacuate, and others lost all they had.

Said Yeager, “ We were dealing with 1,000+ acre fires literally every other day, sometimes daily.  Volunteers were on fires daily, sometimes for multiple days straight. The costs of fighting those fires was particularly troublesome to me. Being the local guy, I knew of fire departments who were engaging fires. I saw their efforts. I went out and lived it with them and gained an appreciation and respect and understanding of what they were experiencing. I also recognized the value in applying as much common sense to this situation as could be.

“The idea to redirect our focus and commit funding and time and energy into increasing the capacity of local fire departments to respond fast and heavy, to hit fires small, to keep them small was the product of simple common sense, and in recognition that the wildland fire system abroad, while purposeful and powerful in many ways, has a finite capacity for the number of large fires it can staff.”

In analyzing the situation and, most of all, in talking to all the factions involved –Yeager came up with an idea, which, as Southern Area Fire Program Manager with oversight of seven counties, he has been able to try out in a pilot program, beginning small in the fall of 2015 in Yellowstone County.

Calling the new strategy a really big deal, Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund said that he is proud that Yellowstone County has been able to serve as its proving ground. The new approach in dealing with fires is going to have major impact across the country, believes Ostlund.

“It has been enormously successful,” said Ostlund, “It is saving millions of dollar in firefighting costs, and saving in lost property, injuries and lives.”

At the base of Yeager’s idea is to get resources onto a fire as soon as possible. Instead of hours or even days, his goal is to have resources on a fire within minutes.

The approach seems to be working. After a number of years in which major fires would routinely rage through the region in late summer and early fall, filling skies with smoke and ash, and costing hundreds of millions of dollars to battle, Yellowstone County and surrounding areas haven’t seen a major fire in over three years. And, the fires that have occurred have been under a hundred acres.

Yeager emphasized that simply communicating – having discussions with the various factions involved with firefighting, has been key to developing and implementing the program. “There are so many different levels of government agencies involved, and while all have the same interest, they couldn’t come together in a way that kept fires small,” he said.

As a state agency, the DNRC maintains an operating agreement with the BLM, USFS, NPS, USFWS, BIA, and numerous other states, which allow them to trade and utilize each other’s resources, with each paying the costs associated with using the resource.

Simply by talking with all the many individuals and agencies, Yeager created “buy-in,” to “give it a try.” Continuing that process of getting “buy in” will be vital in advancing the approach. The program is in its “infancy” characterized Yeager, “but it is starting to get attention.”

According to Commissioner Ostlund, explaining how the program works will be part of the agenda of the next statewide meeting of the Montana Association of Counties, where “for the first time” he expects to get “buy-in” from most of the county commissioners “who are excited about being able to better protect landowners.”

Almost all of the area fire districts are participating in the program, although some districts are too small or face other barriers to participation.

 Last year, had the largest participation, involving 400 volunteer fire fighters at 31 of 54 fire departments throughout the seven counties, including those in Yellowstone County, such as Worden, Shepherd, Lockwood, etc.

According to Yellowstone County’s Disaster and Emergency Coordinator and Fire Warden, KC Williams, Yellowstone County’s fire chiefs are excited about the program. He added, that although Yellowstone County’s fire chiefs and agencies always worked well together – and although he hasn’t been long on the job – as the plan has been implemented he has witnessed even greater coordination and better communication among the local  factions.

Under the new program, no more waiting after a fire starts to see if it becomes large enough to justify greater assistance, which has been the strategy of the past. Now, resources are put into place in advance. The results have been that rather than taking days to get resources to a fire, they now are there in a matter of minutes, while it is still a small fire.

The approach has made all the difference in the world.

Not only is it more effective, it is less expensive and it is a boon to local fire departments. It supports the volunteer fire fighters, bearing in mind, says Yeager, volunteer fire fighters are at the core of success in all firefighting efforts.

The new plan serves to support local fire departments through an agreement between them and DNRC, which places DNRC fire fighters on duty at local fire stations under the supervision of local fire chiefs. The fire fighters are local volunteers, who become employed by DNRC, throughout the core fire season.

In the past, after a fire became large enough to be deemed qualifying, fire fighters and equipment from elsewhere in the country would be brought into the area to help fight it. Transporting them to the fire site would take critical hours and perhaps days – with the fire burning and expanding all the while. Once they arrived, the fire fighters invariably were unfamiliar with the area, with its culture and priorities, and with the local people with whom they had to work. The cost of transporting, housing and feeding fire fighters contributed greatly to the cost of firefighting.

Under the new program not only are local departments reinforced with the addition of the state-paid fire fighters, the fire fighters are local people, emotionally attached to the area’s well-being, familiar with the area and with the people and agencies with which they have to work.

The arrangement also helps local fire departments with the common dilemma of having to send their own fire fighters to fight wildland fires, elsewhere, for what is often a matter of days or even weeks – leaving little back up to provide protection for the local community.

While the DNRC fire fighters are on-duty they perform duties related to being successful in performing “rapid and aggressive initial attacks,” including  training, maintaining equipment, and checking out lightning strikes.

The wages the volunteers receive improves their ability to be available. Most  volunteers are usually dependent on other jobs, which they can’t afford to leave for extended periods to help fight fire, but being paid by DNRC not only makes that a greater possibility, but becomes an incentive for others to serve as volunteers.

The idea of sharing resources with local fire departments is not new for the DNRC. For some time now they have loaned local departments fire trucks in order to have the equipment available in locations with potential fire risk. Across the state DNRC has 75 fire trucks on loan to local stations under cooperative agreements – eight of those are located at fire districts in Yellowstone County.

Yeager’s program also has in place, in advance, many other processes, permissions and contractual arrangements required in dealing with firefighting, which before were not dealt with until a fire had grown large. Previously, a fire chief would call for help and then physically have to go through a required check list before anyone would give assistance. Getting through that check list could take from 24 to 72 hours, said Yeager. “That meant that meaningful help would not happen.”

The data shows that the new approach has a 8-1 benefit ratio, says Yeager. That means it costs about 1/8 of that of fighting a raging wildland fire.

While the number of reported fires has not changed – about 800 fires per year – “We don’t have any large fires,” said Yeager.

Although July through September is the core fire season, fires happen year round. They are more prevalent when there is no snow cover. For example last weekend, before it snowed, there were over a dozen wildland fires reported within a 48 hour period. So, the DNRC plans for fire occurrence during all 12 months of the year.