Soon all local calling will require dialing the “406” area code in order to make the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline effective.

Spectrum announced the implementation of a new 10-digit dialing procedure for Spectrum Voice customers and Spectrum Business Voice clients in Montana, allowing users to easily reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline via the new 988 dialing code when it launches in July, 2022.

While seven-digit dialing will remain enabled for several months, beginning October 24, all local calls will require customers dial the area code followed by the seven-digit phone number in order for a call to be completed. Additionally, important safety and security equipment, such as medical alert devices and alarm systems should be programmed to use 10-digit dialing. Beginning July 16, 2022, dialing 988 will automatically route calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Prior to next year’s launch, customers must continue to dial 1-800-273-8255 to reach the hotline.

The new dialing procedure is the result of an FCC order approving 988 as the three-digit abbreviated dialing code to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. In order for 988 to operate correctly for Spectrum customers in the 56 area codes listed below, every customer in those area codes must be transitioned to 10-digit dialing for local calls.

The City of Billings hopes to be able to issue a request for bids for the Inner Belt Loop a year from now.

The City of Billings Planning Department released an update last week on the progress of the Inner Belt Loop as it relates to the federal Build Grant, which the city won to help fund the project.

City staff is in the process of meeting all the requirements outlined in the grant in order to enter into an agreement with the Federal Highways (FHWA) department. The agreement cannot be submitted until the construction documents are ready, which means the completion the right-of-way purchase, environmental documents and final construction documents. Staff expects to be able to submit all that information by fall, with another six months required for the FHWA review, putting an executed agreement into April 2022. 

Once the city receives the executed agreement from FHWA, the project will be put out for bid.

Billings was awarded $11.6 million in federal BUILD grant funds to construct the Inner Belt Loop and Skyline Trail in September 2020. The grant award was for only a portion of the requested sum of approximately $16.8 million to complete the Inner Belt Loop, and the pedestrian/bike trails, Skyline and Stagecoach. The City of Billings is supplementing the project with $7 million and $85,000 is being donated from Billings TrailNet.

City planning expected to receive six appraisals for right-of-way procurement at the end of April.

The city has also been in negotiation with an environmental professional who has completed the NEPA environmental process for other recent TIGER and BUILD grants, and believe that his services will cost less than $50,000 to do similar work for Billings. 

They anticipate completing the environmental scoping and contracting also by the end of April, with the environmental (NEPA) work completed within about 6 months.  The consultant will work to prepare the field review and reports, submittals by the consultant to various agencies, and review by agencies for approval.

A date will be announced for the official kick-off event of the project.

As marijuana becomes legalized in more parts of the country and as an increasing number of states grow, harvest, store, sell and allow consumption, the nation’s real estate industry has felt the effects.

According to a new report from the National Association of Realtors, there has been a noticeable rise in demand for warehouses, land and store fronts used for marijuana.

A DEA agent in Montana concurred with that assessment, advising that one of the economic impacts that Billings will see is the buying up of large warehouses or other large open-spaced buildings which will be “gutted” and converted to the growing and production of marijuana.

The 2021 survey, Marijuana and Real Estate: A Budding Issue, examines the impacts of marijuana on real estate in terms of both “medical only” and legalized “medical and recreational” comparing data going back to before 2016.

More than one-third of respondents in states where marijuana has been legalized, said inventory is tight for multiple reasons and cited the marijuana industry as one of the factors. This is also true for those in areas where marijuana was more recently legalized, as 23 percent of Realtors also partially blamed the marijuana industry for the limited inventory.

“The dynamics of marijuana have been far-reaching over the past year, which is evident when you see how it has impacted real estate,” said Jessica Lautz, vice president of demographics and behavioral insights for NAR. “As the marijuana laws continue to evolve, Realtors have witnessed increased demand for commercial properties to store, grow and sell marijuana.”

Additionally, 29 percent of commercial members in states that legalized recreational marijuana during the past four years reported growth in property purchasing over leasing in the last year. Nearly half of those in states that legalized both medical and recreational marijuana before 2016, said that they have experienced addendums being added to residential leases that restrict tenants growing marijuana on properties, compared to one quarter or less in other states. Sixty-nine percent of commercial members in states, where only medical marijuana is lawful, said that no additional addendums were being seen in leases concerning marijuana plants. This compares to 45 to 55 percent, where both medical and recreational use are legal.

Possibly in an effort to steer clear of landlord addendums, some marijuana business investors outright bought property rather than leasing, which means they no longer had to adhere to marijuana rules or regulations that they may have considered burdensome. This trend was seen the most in states where marijuana is newly legal.

Among respondents in states where recreational marijuana is legal, they more often said that homeowner associations regularly had policies or restrictions in place pertaining to smoking and growing marijuana. Nearly half of homeowner associations were against smoking in common areas, while about two-fifths prohibited growing in mutual open areas, such as a private yard without fences.

“We saw that a number of property owners at some point in the past had difficulty leasing their property after a previous tenant consumed marijuana there over an extended period,” said Lautz. “To avoid repeats of those issues, landlords have implemented various guidelines that place numerous restrictions on the use of marijuana.”

Lautz says property owners who have imposed such constraints tend to reside or own property in states where marijuana has been legal the longest.

As the marijuana industry evolves, both commercial and residential landlords are balancing efforts to profit from it, while also ensuring that their property remains desirable and at a high value, Lautz said.

The Center Square

After states shut down schools and forced families into virtual learning, parents and families found new ways to provide K-12 education to their children. While doing so, support for school choice options soared, a new poll from Real Clear Opinion Research found.

Among those surveyed, 71% said they support school choice, which is defined as giving parents the option to use the tax dollars designated for their child’s education to send their child to the public or private school that best serves their needs. Across all racial and ethnic demographics, an overwhelming majority expressed support for school choice: Blacks (66%), Hispanic (68%), and Asian (66 percent).

These results “were the highest level of support ever recorded from major AFC national polling with a sample size above 800 voters,” the survey states.

Among those surveyed, more held a negative few of teachers’ unions. In one question, it states, “In many states, teachers’ unions have advocated to keep public schools closed and continue virtual learning instead of reopening school buildings. Meanwhile, 92% of private Catholic schools were operating with in-person learning in September. Does this make you feel more or less favorable towards teachers’ unions that oppose re-opening?”

In response, 36% held a more favorable view, 47% a less favorable view.

“The continued very strong support among voters for school choice and spending flexibility for parents of school-aged children is a clear message for policymakers,” John Schilling, president of the American Federation of Children, said in response to the survey. “Parents and families are demanding greater choice in K-12 education and they expect policymakers to put the needs of students ahead of the special interests who are bound and determined to protect the status quo.

“The need for education freedom is at an all-time high and it’s reaffirming to see many state policymakers stepping up and supporting school choice across the country. Thirty-two states have introduced 36 bills to create or expand educational choice and we urge policymakers in these states to get these bills over the finish line on behalf of families and students.”

The survey was conducted among 2,009 registered voters between March 12 and 17 and has a margin of error of +/- 2.44 percent. It’s a 65% increase in support of school choice from a similar survey conducted in January.

The Georgia Center for Opportunity’s (GCO) take: “As this poll clearly shows, ensuring educational access for all is a common-sense, non-partisan issue,” said Buzz Brockway, Georgia Center for Opportunity vice president of public policy, said in a statement. “Unfortunately, a sliver of loud and influential special interest groups work to bar parents, families, and students from achieving true educational equity. We can’t allow that to happen. When 65% of registered voters tell you they support a concept like the Education Scholarship Account idea proposed right here in Georgia, lawmakers need to listen.”

The RealClear poll results follow a similar pattern reported by the U.S. Census Bureau, whose recent Household Pulse Survey found a substantial increase in the number of parents who chose to home-school in 2020 compared to 2019.

In the first week of Phase 1 of the Household Pulse Survey (April 23-May 5), roughly 5.4 percent of U.S. households with school-aged children reported that they home-schooled. By the fall, however, that number jumped to 11.1 percent (Sept. 30-Oct.12).

“It’s clear that in an unprecedented environment, families are seeking solutions that will reliably meet their health and safety needs, their childcare needs and the learning and socio-emotional needs of their children,” the authors of the report write.

Those who increased home-schooling spanned across all demographics. Notably, among Black households, the proportion of home-schooling increased slightly more than five-fold, from 3.3 percent to 16.1 percent within a three- to five-month time span.

By Michael Vondra

Here’s a long-lasting Mother’s Day gift

Mother’s Day has almost arrived. As an adult, you can fully appreciate all your mother has done for you, so, on this occasion, you may be happy to give Mom flowers, candy, jewelry or something similar. But Mother’s Day is here and then it’s gone. Is there a longer-term gift that can make a real difference in your mother’s life?

Actually, there is – the gift of knowledge for her financial future.

Specifically, there are two key areas in which you may be able to provide valuable help to your mother: long-term care and estate planning. But don’t panic – you don’t have to be an expert in either one of these subjects. You can, however, steer Mom – and possibly your other parent, too, if one is in the picture – in the right direction. Let’s take a quick look at both these topics.

First, consider long-term care. If your mother is in good health, you may not have thought much about whether she would eventually need an extended stay in a nursing home or the services of a home health aide. But the odds aren’t necessarily in her favor: About 70 percent of adults who reach 65 will eventually require some type of long-term service and support, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. And this type of care is expensive: The annual median cost for a private room in a nursing home is more than $100,000, and it’s nearly $55,000 per year for the full-time services of a home health aide, according to a survey by the insurance company Genworth.

Unless your mother has accumulated a great deal of financial resources, she likely won’t be able to pay these costs out of pocket without jeopardizing her financial independence. Furthermore, Medicare typically pays only a small portion of these expenses.

To help your mother deal with this potential financial threat, you might want to suggest she meet with a financial professional, who can explore possible strategies and products designed to address long-term care. And the sooner, the better, because these solutions will become more expensive and challenging the older your mother gets.

The second topic you may want to bring up with your mother is her estate plan. Has she drafted a will? Has she safeguarded her wishes by creating the necessary legal documents? These could include a durable power of attorney for finances, which allows her to name someone to manage her financial affairs if she becomes incapacitated, and a durable power of attorney for health care, which allows someone to make medical decisions for her if she is able to do so herself. 

Having her estate plans in order can help protect your mother’s finances and ensure her legacy is honored – which is almost certainly an outcome she would keenly desire. So, if your mother doesn’t already have a comprehensive estate plan, encourage her to see a legal professional to start the process.

Helping your mother protect herself from the catastrophic costs of long-term care and the chaos of an inadequate estate plan may not sound like a typical Mother’s Day offering, but your actions can help keep Mom in a good place in life –and that’s a pretty valuable gift. 

Sponsored by:

Michael A Vondra

Certified Financial Planner Practitioner

Edward Jones

A new report released by EY finds that repealing the step-up in basis tax provision would damage the gross domestic product (GDP) and significantly decrease job creation. The study was conducted for the Family Business Estate Tax Coalition, which includes almost 60 organizations representing family-owned businesses.  

The EY study found middle-class, family-owned businesses would be particularly hard hit by the repeal. Currently, when someone inherits assets, they aren’t taxed on the appreciation that happened before they inherited them. If family-owned farms, small businesses or manufacturers are forced to pay capital gains accrued by the prior owner, they would likely face large tax bills that put the future of their business at risk.   

According to the study’s findings, repealing the step-up in basis would result in:  

* 80,000 fewer jobs in each of the first ten years;  

* 100,000 fewer jobs each year thereafter; and

* A $32 reduction in workers’ wages  for every $100 raised by taxing capital gains at death. 

It would also reduce GDP relative to the U.S. economy in 2021, by approximately: 

* $10 billion annually;

* $100 billion over 10 years. 

“Repealing stepped-up basis is not a free lunch for those looking to generate tax revenue and would have significant consequences in the multifamily marketplace,” said Doug Bibby, President of the National Multifamily Housing Council. 

Each year the Big Sky Economic Development Authority awards $5000 grants to projects proposed by groups or individuals that will enhance the appearance and enjoyment of locations in the county.

Following are the 2021 recipients and a brief description of the awarded projects:

—Lockwood Optimist Club – Outdoor cinema and seating area and other improvements to Hillner Park

—Broadview Community Center –  Outdoor gathering space/seating area at the community center

—Downtown Billings Alliance – Light Bike Trail in alleyways throughout downtown

—Southside Neighborhood Task Force – Gateway to the Yellowstone River murals at 6th Street underpass and N 13th St underpass

—Underground Culture Krew/Tyson Middle – mural at the Skatepark on S. 27th St

— Yellowstone Valley Animal Shelter – mural and honor/memorial fence at YVAS entrance

— Billings Community Foundation/Eat.Share.Give – Community Gardens

A program especially designed for the restaurant industry has been announced by the US Small Business Administration. The program was part of the federal government’s American Rescue Plan. It set aside $28.6 billion for a Restaurant Revitalization Fund (RRF)to be administered within the SBA.

Said SBA Administrator Isabella Casillas Guzman, “The restaurant industry has been among the hardest-hit sectors during the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. To help bring jobs back and revive the industry… the SBA will administer the funds to the hardest-hit small restaurants.”  For the first 21 days priority will be given to applications from small businesses owned by women, veterans and disadvantaged individuals.

“With the launch of the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, we’re prioritizing funding to the hardest-hit small businesses – irreplaceable gathering places in our neighborhoods and communities that need a lifeline now to get back on their feet,” said Guzman. “… we’re rolling out this program to make sure that these businesses can meet payroll, purchase supplies, and get what they need in place to transition to today’s … marketplace.”

Guzman emphasized, “We’re also focused on ensuring that the RRF program’s application process is streamlined and free of burdensome, bureaucratic hurdles – while still maintaining robust oversight. Under my leadership, the SBA aims to be as entrepreneurial as the entrepreneurs we serve – and that means meeting every small business where they are, and giving them the support they need to recover, rebuild and thrive.”

Governor Greg Gianforte has announced a settlement agreement that ends litigation between the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP) and United Property Owners of Montana (UPOM).

“Under the previous administration, FWP didn’t do right by farmers, ranchers, and private property owners. In its effort to spread bison across parts of Montana, FWP didn’t do enough to account for the impacts to local communities and relied on outdated data,” Gov. Gianforte said. “This settlement agreement protects our livestock producers and rural lands and reaffirms the state can and should do better going forward.”

“FWP is committed to engaging communities and stakeholders on the impacts of decisions like this. We’re grateful to have this lawsuit behind us,” said Hank Worsech, director of FWP.

In January 2020, FWP issued a Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement for Bison Conservation and Management in Montana (EIS) and an associated Record of Decision. In March 2020, UPOM filed suit against FWP alleging the agency violated MEPA, MAPA, and environmental impact review requirements during the EIS process.

In the settlement agreement, FWP and UPOM agree the Final EIS failed to adequately consider disease transmission between bison, livestock, and other wildlife, there was an inadequate public comment opportunity, and the Final EIS relied on outdated data, among other things.

“This is a huge win for property owners in Montana.  We’ve successfully blocked the introduction of free-roaming bison for at least the next decade,” said UPOM Policy Director Chuck Denowh.  “This is a major setback for the American Prairie Reserve and their plan to impose wild bison on their neighbors and on our public land.”

Through discovery related to the lawsuit, Denowh says that UPOM learned that FWP officials were in active negotiations with the American Prairie Reserve to establish a free-roaming bison herd in Central Montana.  Documents obtained by UPOM indicated urgency to strike a deal prior to the end of Governor Bullock’s term. “If we hadn’t sued FWP over this bison plan there’s little doubt we would have a herd of free-roaming bison in Central Montana today.” said Denowh.  “It’s chilling to think that FWP was engaging in secret negotiations with an out-of-state special interest group to impose free-roaming bison over the strong objections of local stakeholders.”

NorthWestern Energy has announced plans to build a $250 million, natural gas plant to generate 175 megawatts of electricity at Laurel. The project is part of a three- pronged strategy to add a total of 325 megawatts of capacity to address future electricity needs in Montana.

The company also plans to purchase energy from a 50 megawatt battery storage project; and will enter a power purchase agreement for 100 megawatts of predominantly hydroelectric resources. Finalization of the plans rests with the Montana Public Service Commission, which is expected to take about nine months.

—NorthWestern Energy’s Laurel Generating Station will be a new 175 megawatt, reciprocating internal combustion engine (RICE units), natural gas plant.

For the 175 megawatt natural gas-fired RICE plant, Caterpillar Power Generation Systems, LLC, a subsidiary of Caterpillar, Inc. will supply the RICE units and Burns & McDonnell Engineering Company, Inc. was selected as the Engineering, Procurement, and Construction (EPC) contractor.

The Caterpillar RICE units are highly reliable and efficient with low emissions. The selected engines are capable of rapid ramping and multiple daily starts and stops. These units have the flexibility to provide power on-demand, baseload power, flexible capacity, and regulation services. These characteristics will facilitate the integration of existing and new intermittent renewable energy resources.

— Powerex Corp., a subsidiary of British Columbia-owned BC Hydro, has entered into a five-year power purchase agreement with NorthWestern Energy for 100 megawatts of capacity and energy products originating predominately from hydroelectric resources.  The Powerex Corp agreement, “… will provide our customers with capacity mainly from the BC Hydro system starting in Jan. 1, 2023” said NorthWestern Energy Director Long-Term Resources Bleau LaFave. “Our Montana customers require this capacity as soon as it is available. This market product can be delivered on our existing transmission assets.”

—Contract pending on an Energy Storage Project that will be a 50 megawatt battery storage system utilizing lithium-ion technology.

The 50 megawatt battery energy storage system, is expected to be available to serve NorthWestern Energy’s Montana customers by the end of 2023. 

 “The energy storage project will provide the opportunity to store some excess energy from the grid to use when customer demand is high,” according to LaFave. “Today, NorthWestern Energy most frequently has excess energy on the grid from wind resources. Now we will have the opportunity to store a portion of that excess energy to improve matching the generation with customer demand and higher market pricing.”

“This selection of diverse projects will provide critically needed flexible capacity from a combination of thermal and renewable resources,” said NorthWestern Energy Vice President Supply and Montana Government Relations John Hines.  

NorthWestern Energy is still short of the capacity resources needed to produce energy reliably at the times when Montana customers require it the most, say officials.

The strategies to meet future energy needs is the result of a bidding process for proposals that they issued in January 2020.

In a press release the company said that the new contracts will fill the gap between what they anticipated as needed for future energy supplies and what is currently available. It will also help decrease risk associated with the ups and downs of the market, and potential lack of availability. Overall, it will increase reliability for Montana customers..

The additional capacity will address more than half of NorthWestern Energy’s deficit in its supply portfolio. The deficit is becoming, said the press release, more critical as some regional coal plants and other capacity resources are being shut down, compromising reliability during extreme weather conditions, including multi-day weather events, when energy demand is high.

NorthWestern Energy’s independent, third-party request for proposals evaluator, Aion Energy, received 180 proposals representing a wide variety of technologies from 21 bidders.

The selected resources provide diversity in ownership and technology, including owned and market-based resources and the largest battery-storage project within Montana.

“This resource portfolio addresses a key portion of our immediate need for generation capacity while also allowing us to make progress toward our goal of an energy supply portfolio in Montana that reduces the carbon intensity of our electric generation by 90% by 2045,” said NorthWestern Energy Chief Executive Officer Bob Rowe.

“The 2020 RFP process provided an opportunity to see what projects and technology are available,” said NorthWestern Energy President and Chief Operating Officer Brian Bird. “NorthWestern Energy’s new Laurel Generating Station will be able to provide on-demand capacity for long durations. With that asset added to our Montana portfolio, NorthWestern Energy can consider other, shorter duration capacity projects in future RFPs.”

“Developing a diverse portfolio of resources capable of producing the energy our Montana customers need any time they need it is the responsible path forward as we all work together toward an affordable, reliable and cleaner energy future,” said Rowe.