by Evelyn Pyburn

As someone coming from farm life, I fully know the urgency farmers face during harvest or planting season. Even 15 minutes of “daylight” is vital. Waiting days for some techy to arrive to fix a broken-down piece of equipment is simply not an option. Waiting even two or three days could mean crop failure to a degree that they might as well declare bankruptcy, right then and there. There is no negotiating with Mother Nature.

A break-down in the field was always an opportunity for my brothers or Dad to discover another amazing invention, which often involved the great versatility of bailing wire.

Then there was the time that the witchamajig  that tied one of the knots on bales of hay quit working  and I was sat in place to tie each knot as the bale inched out of the baler – it didn’t even take Dad fifteen minutes to come up with that solution! Be assured that tying hundreds of knots does pose some risk for  painful fingers. But, hey! It worked.

Well, farm machines don’t use witchamajigs any more – like cars they are designed with tons of computerized programs and technology that are as sophisticated as anything that flies airplanes or rocket ships. Baling wire just doesn’t work – but neither does sending out a repairman from Bozeman by mid-afternoon  — in all likelihood they aren’t available. Fixing things that go wrong with the today’s technology takes great expertise and knowledge – -and scheduling, which can very well stretch into two or three days – plenty of time for two or three thundershowers that halt field work until windrows dry or create mud holes that bogs down equipment.

With the new age technology, however, the manufactures of the computerized equipment do not want to share their trade secrets, which telling farmers how to fix it would likely do — an understandable dilemma. One could have seen this dilemma coming a mile away, when they first started announcing what the new age farm equipment was going to be like. Maybe technicians and company CEO’s – -generations off the farm – didn’t understand the importance of timely maintenance and repairs, but they surely do now as farmers – their customers – are demanding speedy repairs in the field.

The big question is: what does the state legislature have to do with it? 

This is a market problem and it should be ironed out between the manufacturing companies and their customers. If the companies fail to meet what their customers need and want they will lose out to competitors who will. Or, at the very least used farm equipment, without all the new technology will escalate in value as it is sought out by farmers who want to make sure they can get their crops planted and their harvest in, even if it is with old technology.

That is what happens in a free market.

Anything forthcoming from politicians tinkering with the situation will only cause other problems. Don’t know what it will be, but that it will be there is no doubt.

 This is a really big issue that will face many people in the market place as more and more technology is developed. It needs to be corrected the right way, right now…. and it’s unlikely politicians have the answer. 

This is actually just one market problem with which Montana legislators are wrangling –  problems that the market should be allowed to sort out – -unless of course it is a problem that previous political meddling has created. Then they need to untangle that past interference and then get out of the way. That’s essentially what all the bills removing red tape which the Governor has pushed forward is all about — undoing the tangled messes that were created by meddling with market issues. Again, it’s too bad more people don’t have confidence in markets. Markets work!

Maybe it’s because of the television show “Yellowstone,” but for whatever reason promoters of the air show in Billings that will feature the Blue Angels are discovering that Montana is really “hot.”

Everyone wants to come, says co-chair of the Yellowstone International Airshow board, Mathew McDonnell. Every performer invited to participate in the air show — and that includes some very top-notch entertainment — has said “yes.” So besides the Blue Angels, the many other acts that will be performing are the very best of the best.

Even the Blue Angels report that of the personal guests they are inviting, everyone is accepting – they all want to visit Montana.

The organizers are expecting 12,500 people per day for the two-day event, which will unfold on August 12 and 13 at the Billings Logan International Airport. Sponsors and volunteers will be putting on one of the biggest shows Billings has ever seen.

Even though Billings is considered a small town, it’s not going to be a small- town airshow, said McDonnell. The Blue Angels are committed to bringing the show that’s produced for big towns – those with populations of 500,000 or more.

There will be other military performers, about which specific information is classified, but they will include some of the fifth generation fighter jets, “that you don’t usually get,” said McDonnell. He adds that the shows line-up has even impressed “Thumper” – Kendall Switzer — a retired Brigadier General who is a past Blue Angel and has been part of many air shows. Switzer now lives in Bozeman and is helping in planning this airshow.

Tickets for the show are already on sale and the VIP tickets for Saturday are already sold out. So far they have sold about a fifth of the general admission tickets they expect to sell.

Tickets are $45 for general admission and $10 for children 10 and under. Buy four or more tickets and get free parking. VIP tickets for Sunday are still available at $125, which include private tent, private viewing area, parking, VIP pass, private food and beverage stations and private porta potty.

They have 50 chalet tents that are being sold as suites that accommodate 15 people per suite. At $15,000 each, about half are already sold, said McDonnell.  More information is available on the web site,

Also on the website are sites to submit requests to be a vendor or to operate a food truck, as well as to volunteer. A number of food trucks are already committed as are a number of vendors who will sell souvenirs or other air show related items. Others with tables and displays are military recruiters and non-profit organizations.

McDonnell offers one piece of advice to those attending the air show – “Come Early!”

McDonnell explained that there are many things to do and see before the planes fly.

There will be plenty of water and opportunity for shade, he advised, as well as numerous food trucks and beer booths. Patrons may bring in chairs and blankets, but umbrellas and coolers will not be allowed.

Parking in the peripheral or secondary areas will also not be allowed because of protocols for safety required by the Blue Angels.

Thursday and Friday will be hectic days of preparation and flying practice, which of course are not open to the public, but a special event will be held on Friday for disabled veterans, who are urged to register on the website so they can be notified and invited.

The airshow will also include a salute to 75 years of women in the military.

Volunteers have emerged from every corner of Billings, and even from other parts of the state. Each of the 25 or so board members have taken on a duty from managing the food and beverage vendors to lining up the motels and hotels, to planning the airport layout and parking for the event. The show is paying only two individuals— a coordinator from Salt Lake City and an “air boss” – everyone else are volunteers. McDonnell said that the Salt Lake City coordinator proclaimed that “this is the best board I have ever seen.”

Ticket sales and sponsors help to fund the $1 million or so that it takes to put on an air show.  The project is an expensive one, as they have to rent tents, porta potties, sound systems, fences, etc. They have to pay for the entertainment acts and for fuel, which is quite expensive, said McDonnell, who adds that they have gone all- out for lots of “flames and explosions”, which while adding to the cost, will make the show more exciting.

 Co-chairs of the airshow board, Matthew McDonnell and Jake Penwell, have been working on putting the airshow together for more than two years. It all started over breakfast at PAYS café, where the two old friends reminisced about their youth growing up in Billings and what they loved and appreciated about their hometown.  As Jake and Matt reminisced they talked about wanting to be able to “give back” to the community they loved, then suddenly they declared “why not!?” Why not try to bring the airshow back.

Penwell shared how impactful the former airshows in Billings had been for him. “That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said, explaining that he had long been entertaining ideas of joining the military, but after seeing the airshow he enlisted in the Navy. Today, Penwell’s son has become the third generation of Penwells to serve in the Navy.

To inspire, motivate and educate young people about the military and their country is the purpose of the Blue Angels airshows.

The Blue Angels are a flight demonstration squadron of the United States Navy who fly Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets. Over the years they have performed for more than 500 million people. The squadron’s logistics support aircraft is the C-130J Super Hercules.

Founded in 1946 by the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Chester Nimitz, the Blue Angel’s performances assist in recruiting and retention goals for the military services, enhance esprit de corps among uniformed men and women, and inspire and educate young people. The team is stationed at Forrest Sherman Field, Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, during the air show season. The squadron spends January through March training at Naval Air Facility El Centro, California.

An interior remodel of The Squire Lounge & Casino, on Broadwater Avenue has been completed and is introducing a new food concept – – Topless Tacos.

A complete make-over of the lounge area features a vintage neon sign that was part of Steve Henry’s collection of vintage signs. Henry offered Squire owners, Reid and Shawna Pyburn, the sign for their use in remodeling. They quickly seized the opportunity and its bright light now illuminates the bar area and sets the ambiance for the entire lounge, which has been redesigned offering plush seating, stage area, and the new food concept, Topless Tacos.

Topless Tacos will be served throughout the day at the Squire, from opening with breakfast tacos through to closing with a choice of beef or chicken dishes – all of which are served without embellishment and the patron may add their favorite toppings from an array of choices in a buffet of popular garnishes.

Also the Squire’s limited menu includes nachos and taco salad which guests may also top with their favorite garnishes.

According to the Pyburns, the Squire’s traditional and popular Thursday Steak night will resume on April 20 when the patio opens. Steak Night was instituted by former owners Paul “Pauly” DeVerniero and Jeff Flatness who bought the business in 2011 from Larry McGrill.

Reid and Shawna Pyburn, who also own the High Horse Saloon & Eatery, purchased The Squire Lounge & Casino, almost a year ago.

The Squire Lounge and Casino is one of Billings’ legacy businesses. It had its roots in downtown Billings near 3320 1st Avenue North, long before 1973, (perhaps about 1960) owned by Frank Lambrecht. His sons, Jack and Al, relocated the business with a new building at 1525 Broadwater. DeVeniero said he was a bartender at The Squire from 1976 to 1981. Larry McGrill purchased the business from the Lambrechts in 1990.

Exactly when the Squire was started as a business has been lost to antiquity. It is estimated to be about 70-plus years old.

Yellowstone County is Montana’s largest economic hub, made so in large part because it serves a four-state regional area. Partly because its economy is based upon success of other states in the region, which have had their own economic struggles, Yellowstone County’s economy has had a “subpar performance for the latter half of the previous decade,” explains economist Pat Barkey, Director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

He referenced areas like the Bakken in North Dakota, whose gas and oil industry has a significant impact on Yellowstone County. Despite that, the county has had some steady improvement over the past two years because of improvement in some of its core industries, which includes “strong visitor spending.”

While Yellowstone County and Billings had strong growth in 2022 at 3.1 percent, Barkey said he is pessimistic about 2023 for the county – projecting a growth of less than zero at – 1.1 percent.

The county’s health care industry, has had “sluggish” growth, which has been the industry’s experience across the state.

Banking and finance, retail, wholesale and transportation-related businesses in Yellowstone County have been enjoying growth.

It was noted that, unlike other areas of the state, much of Yellowstone County’s population growth has been from other counties in the state.

Looking beyond 2023, the BBER forecast was quite a bit better with 2024 projected at 2.4 percent, and 2025 at 3.1 percent and 2026 at 2.0 percent.

Yellowstone County’s most prominent industry (wages as a share relative to US average) is Mining, followed by Wholesale Trade and Health Care, followed by Transportation and Construction.

Defying the law of supply and demand, the number of housing starts over the past two years has slipped, while median sales prices have increased. Housing has barely been able to keep on a par with the county’s population growth which has ranged from 11 percent to 14 percent over the past couple of years. In 1980 housing growth was 46.6 percent in the county while population growth was 23.7 percent.

Recovery in employment over pre-pandemic levels has been strong, with Accommodations and Food having seen phenomenal growth. Growth has also been strong in Construction, Transportation and Professional/ technical fields.

Airport passenger enplanements at Billings Logan International Field have not recovered from declines over the past three years from a peak in 2019.

The situation for other highly-populated areas of the state is varied.


Gallatin County has the state’s fastest growing economy, according to the BBER, noting that that growth is spreading across the county from Bozeman to impact Belgrade, Manhattan and Three Forks. Tourism has had a strong impact on the county’s economy, in more ways than one. While many of the businesses that serve the tourism industry have surged, many have been forced to limit their hours or expansion because of workforce issues. Not only is it difficult to find workers but the escalating cost of housing in Gallatin County makes it difficult for workers to be able to afford to live there.

Nevertheless, visitor spending is expected to remain strong in Gallatin County, which along with strong tech growth and its attraction for out-of-staters to relocate there, will continue to spur strong growth into coming years. While Gallatin County is attracting out-of-state migration, others are leaving the county to relocate in other Montana counties.


Experiencing the second fastest growth in Montana is Flathead County, which in 2021 was almost as strong as Gallatin County. Driving the economy is visitor spending  and construction. The BBER forecasted 2023 growth at 1.9 percent in non-farm earnings. Housing prices cooled in Flathead County in 2022, and wages surged by 20 percent. Its basic industries are non-resident travel, manufacturing, health care and government.

Flathead County is projected to experience 1.9 percent growth in 2023.


Visitor spending was also important to strong growth for Missoula County, which has had “noticeable acceleration” in its economic growth over the past two years. Visitor spending has spurred the expansion of the motel and restaurant business segments in Missoula. The county also has growth in tech industries and in health care.

While not quite as robust as in Flathead and Gallatin Counties, construction has been strong in Missoula, where 2023 growth has been projected at 1.5 percent.


After three years of negative growth, Silver Bow County experienced positive growth of 5.5 percent in 2021. In 2022 growth was 0.6 percent. Such volatility for the county is not unknown, said economist Pat Barkey, because of its exposure to world commodity prices. Mining is the county’s most predominant industry. Like so much of the rest of the state, the county benefited from non-resident spending.

Positive growth is not projected to continue into 2023, according to Barkey, who projects negative growth of -0.7 percent.


Cascade County has “upshifted” into faster growth, according to the BBER. In 2021 its growth was 3.3 percent—the fastest growth since 2006. Its growth has been spurred by new building construction in both residential and commercial projects. A new medical school is one example. Great Falls is a trade center for the agricultural “Golden Triangle” area.

Government and federal military are Cascade County’s biggest industries because of the presence of the military base. Health care follows as the next important business segment.

While the growth in 2022 was 2.1 percent for Cascade County, projected growth for 2023 drops to 0.3 percent.


Lewis & Clark County has seen unprecedented growth in federal transfer payments related to federal transfer payments for pandemic stimulus programs. As those programs wound down, the county’s growth decelerated in 2021 but still came in at 2.7 percent in 2022.

This county too benefited by visitor spending and had an uptick in retail trade. Government and state government are at the top of the most prominent industries in the county. The county is projected to experience 0.5 percent growth in 2023.

By Evelyn Pyburn

Billings representative, Katie Zolnikov has introduced House Bill 337, which would prohibit local governments from requiring minimum residential lot sizes. Zolnikov’s aim is to open the door to the development of more affordable housing.

Such legislation would be unnecessary if private property rights were adhered to by a power-crazed bureaucracy.

The fact is about half the legislation we see would be unnecessary if private property rights were adhered to by both governments and citizens. If only “leaders” would trust to the market when it comes to determining what consumers or homeowners want!

The decline in respect for private property is an ominous trend, since liberty depends upon individuals being able to own and use property. Government in the US was intended to own only a scant necessity of property as needed to facilitate what it was supposed to do, and infringing upon private property required compensation.

Property owners should be compensated because the USE of property is its value. When you purchase property you are really purchasing the right to determine how to use it. The more you can do with a parcel, the greater its demand and the greater its value. When you rent it the renter purchases a portion of the right to use it in a specific way for a specific time. When city hall, the county, state or federal government usurp part of your ability to use it, there is a takings (theft) and the owner should be compensated for the loss.

Of course, such a system would greatly diminish the eagerness of bureaucrats to dictate how private individuals may use their property.

Years ago as planners and czars were ratcheting up their power over how people could build homes, ostensibly for “health and safety”, there were those who warned that this day would come – the  day, when the market would not function and there would not be enough housing, and what there would be would be inordinately expensive.

Back then – in the ‘70s —  I was told that they needed  to control the size of residential lots because they had done studies on rats and determined that when rats lived in crowded conditions, rats died. They didn’t want us all dying like rats, they said. Really! this is true! It was what a somber, sober and ostensibly wise bureaucrat told me.

Of course that was the policy that created urban sprawl, which today the autocrats hate and are dedicated to eradicating with the implementation of a different set of coercive regulations telling people what to do with their property. The point is, of course, that while they assert that they have all the answers, even their own history says they do not.

There is nothing wrong within our economy regarding housing that a free market wouldn’t take care of so rapidly that market glitches would be corrected before we even noticed them. That the housing market is so crippled screams to the high heavens that housing is not functioning in a free market. Any time there are market distortions, look closely, it is always because of government controls.

Believe it or not there was a time when people built homes with no government oversight – many of those homes are the beautiful homes in historic districts that everyone now wants to save and  which usually hold premium prices even though they are a century old. How is that possible?

As far as guaranteeing the integrity of a building?  On my Grandfather’s ranch when they went to demolish the house that was built during the Homestead era, it proved to be so soundly and tightly built with hand hewn logs – with no guidance from “experts” —  that when they tried to remove it they could not pull it down with the farm tractors. They had to burn it down. Again, how is that possible without building codes and inspectors?

A property owner should be able to build whatever kind of house they want on property they own, so long as it poses no physical danger or damage to others. If it’s a poorly built house it will have no value to potential future buyers and banks won’t accept it as collateral. People have every incentive to build quality structures and the market will deal quite ruthlessly with those who don’t.

The color or size of a house isn’t anyone’s business but the property owner’s. It shouldn’t matter what space they have in front of the house or whether the garage is in front or back. The property owner should be able to place a basketball hoop where they want or put up whatever kind of fence they want. This is how property rights work.

If a prospective homeowner wants protection against what neighbors might do, they buy property in a development that has covenants restricting use and construction – which would be something they CHOOSE to accept.

While much attention is being given to lot sizes and prohibitions against multi-family units, there are also hundreds of regulations dictating how people should build, dictates that impose extraordinary costs while eliminating no risks. Some years ago, there was a report that concluded that unnecessary regulations imposed $40,000 on a typical new house in Montana. And – they said Montana was one of the worst states for imposing costly and overly restrictive regulations.

Some cities restrict colors one can paint a house, whether gardens are permissible, or how high the fence can be. Good grief, we had planners who were consternated about how wide a garage door should be or whether a property owner could build an apartment over their garage. In Billings, in order to appease someone else’s sense of esthetics, ordinances force property owners to place garages in the alley. What business is it of theirs, especially when you know the last thing you are going to see after a two-foot snowstorm is a city snow plow?

Regulations on property use have much broader impacts than just cost. Decades ago it was  common for people – especially the elderly – to rent out a room in their home – quite often to students – which was not only more affordable but helped older home owners to afford to stay in their homes. It also provided social interaction for older people, who otherwise might live very solitary lives, and it created a degree of security for both the landlords and tenants. This, too, was made illegal as municipalities policed the use of private property. But again, the “experts” in some communities have changed their views and are allowing “mother – in-law” apartments – not so much because of broader social and economic benefits but because it addresses their earlier mistakes in creating urban sprawl.

However, current policies still continue to create urban sprawl, as was revealed during community discussions last year by builders who said they don’t want to build within the city and many people don’t want to live within the city, because of violations of private property rights.  They “sprawl” into the country side.

One could go on and on explaining the ridiculousness of housing regulations and  the real things that happen, which not only impose costs on homebuilders but cripple housing availability.  Just strike up a conversation with a builder and they will readily tell you. If you listen to them you will be doing more than most municipal leaders.

Bear in mind the builders, engineers and architects tend to keep mum about building conflicts and ineffectual regulations, because as one architect pointed out to me some years ago, the building department and city hall control most aspects of their professions and if they want to stay in business they better keep their mouths shut and heads down.

So while House Bill 337 is certainly welcome, our right to own and use property already covers the violations it addresses, and while the bill may be of some help, housing will remain unaffordable and increasingly limited, until the housing market becomes free, and property owners can determine for themselves what they want. What we really need is the reinstitution of private property rights.

The first 80 students will begin “active learning” in July at Billings’ newly completed Rocky Vista University Montana College of Osteopathic Medicine at the intersection of Monad and Shiloh.  Construction began on the 138,000 square foot facility— Montana’s first medical college— in October of 2021. The college is unique in that there are no lecture halls; students learn through hands-on training and hyper-realistic simulations with state-of-the-art technology. Training uses aids such as lifelike mannequins that can breathe and be administered IVs, or virtual reality goggles that can take students into the body, the heart, or into the bloodstreams. David Park, the Vice-President and the Founding Dean, reports that the privately-funded college has already had a significant economic impact on the Billings community and will continue to have a $78.6 million impact, as well as an additional $67 million impact as it continues to fully expand over the next 4 years. The college provides 350 jobs, and adds more than $1.2 million in taxes to the region.

 The college offers a program called the Rural Medicine Track, where our students will be specifically trained on how to deliver healthcare in rural settings, and which will hopefully be able to provide additional services and support for rural communities. Well aware of the housing shortage, Rocky Vista is partnering with Stock Development to build 720 apartments next to the college.36 apartments have already been built. Rocky Vista also has medical colleges at Parker, Colorado and in Ivins, Utah

By Evelyn Pyburn

Having goals has long been understood as essential to achieve great things.

There’s no doubt that goals work! It hardly matters what the goal is or even if it is explicitly identified. That is why almost every organization establishes a mission statement.

One has to wonder, then, about the lure of investing in companies who loudly proclaim making money is not their primary goal.

Investing in ESG – greatly regaled by the media and pushed by government edicts – has become the politically correct thing to do. That in itself should present all kinds of warning flags – the very meaning of “politically correct” is essentially that of unthinking lemmings racing to the cliff’s edge.

So as people look at the businesses in which they want to invest, one has to wonder why they are so eager to invest in a business, that has declared to the world, its goal is not to make money, but to be obedient to government, surrender to environmental causes and to give what they have to others.  (ESG stands for Environment, Society and Government) Some wholly eschew the idea of making a profit as really being the evil that generations of school children have been taught.

If not making a profit is a company’s goal, be assured they won’t. And, neither will their investors. Ask any business owner— not making a profit is easy!

And yet it is, to be socially responsible, to accommodate for environmental issues, and most especially to abide by government edicts, requires that a business makes profits and lots of them.

With that being the case, what is the ESG crowd thinking? Unless it is nothing more than virtue signaling, one must assume that they are among the group that believe that business – especially “big business” – is inherently evil. Given the history of many businesses – most especially when partnered with the coercive powers of government – one can understand their concerns, because many companies are participating every day in corrupt and very evil things. All you have to do is listen to or read the daily news. But have you ever noticed that, most often, their corruption is in some way enabled by government – through laws that protect them from market forces, or suspend them from having to answer for criminal activity, or other policies of favoritism which sometimes include direct handouts funded by taxpayers?

It’s why one rarely sees “big business” espousing the beauty of Capitalism, which is nothing more than free markets – willing buyers and sellers voluntarily exchanging values with one another. The fact is there is a huge sector of the business world who hate free markets and fear them – – they survive because of their unholy alliances with politicians.

We don’t hear so much about the sound, ethical and, usually, politically unconnected businesses that function every day in our communities, working very hard to make a profit which in doing, they achieve, as a matter of course,  all the things that the ESG crowd say they want. Without businesses thriving in a community there is no community, and absolutely none of the ESG goals have a chance of being attained. That’s the way it has always been and how it will always be, because the reality is, business is where wealth is generated.

You cannot help the poor without the wealth generated in the business world. All social and civic efforts in any community come from businesses or the contributions of money and volunteer time of the people who work for them. 

Usually taking the actions required to protect the environment are costly and cannot be pursued without the wealth generated by businesses, which is one reason why the cleanest and most environmentally sensitive countries in the world are the wealthiest. People worried about where their next meal is coming from do not have the wherewithal to clean a polluted stream, and in fact their poverty is usually a contributing factor to the pollution. They most desperately need free markets – businesses making profits.

And, surely everyone understands that government generates absolutely ZERO wealth. Government has nothing and can accomplish nothing without the wealth it expropriates from the private sector – from its citizens and from businesses that make a profit in free markets.

Undoubtedly well-meaning people are making it a point to invest in ESG companies, believing that they will improve their communities and advance society, which are very strong American values. Of course, investors might be willing to accept less returns in exchange for better ESG performance, but according to sources like Harvard Business —  ESG companies don’t seem to deliver any better, and investments in ESG-touting companies are not doing well. While the ESG companies are undoubtedly achieving their non-profit goals, they are better in terms of complying with government rules, operating environmentally friendly, or contributing more to the needy.

It’s been found that the companies in the ESG portfolios had worse compliance records for both labor and environmental rules. Might that be because they lack the “profits” needed to comply? Government regulations on business have always been onerous, requiring greater investments – and companies need profits to pay employees more.

One reason for this, as pondered by the financial experts, is that perhaps companies not doing so well in the market, loudly proclaim an ESG status as a ploy to attract investors, who would otherwise be leery, just looking at their profit and loss statements.

So what are ESG proponents thinking? One has to conclude that either they are not, or their goal is not the success of business – of our economy – but instead they are seeking the destruction of the one thing that makes all others possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Homelessness was also identified as negatively impacting health.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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