- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Livingston Enterprise, July 7, on opposition to mining proposals:

These things keep popping up one after another.

A mining proposal for the flanks of Emigrant Peak. A mining proposal for Jardine. A gravel pit/asphalt plant proposal south of Emigrant.

Two of these operations would be in Paradise Valley, one of the most beautiful spots on earth.

As they pop up, people opposed try to shoot them down.

There are so many proposals now, it’s hard to keep up with them.

To use a metaphor from Livingston’s past, this is no way to run a railroad.

What’s being played out in these proposals and the opposition to them is the decades-long Montana conflict: on one side, landowners who say, “You can’t tell me what to do with my property”; on the other side, residents who reply, “Not if it’s going to ruin what makes this place so special and affect the value of my property.”

There are so many reasons not to have mining, gravel pit and asphalt plant operations smack in middle of the Paradise Valley that it makes your eyes water. No one is saying we shouldn’t have them. It’s just that having them in a place like Paradise Valley is a bad, shortsighted idea.

To quote U.S. House Rep. Ryan Zinke, R-Mont., in a recent interview with The Enterprise: “There’s places to mine. I just can’t see where mining around Yellowstone National Park or Glacier meets the greater good.”

If we don’t come up with a plan bigger than these individual projects, these kind of proposals will keep coming up, roiling the community every time.

That community needs to decide what it wants for Paradise Valley, and other areas like it in Park County. We can’t keep repeating these conflicts.

That raises the prospect of the “Z” word - zoning. Few want hard-core, tree-hugging, California-style restrictions. But surely, given the threats to an area cherished by everyone - traditionalists and environmentalists alike - zoning could be crafted that at least rules out large-scale mining and heavy industry.

It would spare us a lot of angst in the long run.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/29BYYsO


The Independent Record, July 10, on moving a state office from Deer Lodge to Helena:

No matter what the state does with the remaining Title and Registration Bureau jobs in Deer Lodge, it’s going to be unfair to someone.

The Montana Department of Justice recently announced its decision to close the bureau - which has been a fixture in Deer Lodge for more than 60 years - and move its 35 jobs to Helena by November. Despite incorrect information we recently published in a guest editorial from another newspaper, the DOJ did indeed consider moving the bureau to alternate sites in Deer Lodge, Butte and Anaconda but ultimately decided on Helena.

Employees of the Deer Lodge bureau were notified of the decision June 17, and many of them are understandably upset.

During a recent community meeting, bureau employees said they will have to quit, move to Helena or make the 120-mile round-trip commute as a result of the closure. They said none of these options are viable, as they like raising their families in Deer Lodge but don’t have an extra three hours a day to spend commuting or can’t afford to pay for the gas on their current salaries.

With a population of only about 3,000 people, the community of Deer Lodge will also suffer as a result of the closure. Community members worry that the employees who end up commuting will buy things like gas and groceries in Helena instead of Deer Lodge, and those who lose their jobs aren’t going to have as much to spend in the community that is already struggling from recent layoffs at the lumber mill.

On the other hand, DOJ representatives say they have a responsibility to taxpayers and their customers to move the jobs to Helena.

The state is currently spending hundreds of thousands of dollars each year to lease the Deer Lodge building, which they say is twice as big as needed and has a variety of maintenance issues. By consolidating the Deer Lodge jobs in a Helena building that’s already owned and operated by the state, they expect to save an estimated $216,000 per year that can be redirected to better serve the public.

Officials also argue there is no longer an operational reason to keep the bureau in Deer Lodge, which was placed there back when it distributed license plates manufactured at Montana State Prison. Bureau employees provide a central function of state government, not a regional service, and officials say keeping them disconnected from the other central functions in Helena is no longer an efficient model.

In our view, the decision to relocate the bureau from Deer Lodge to Helena makes total business sense, and it will make much better use of the public resources we as Montana citizens entrust to our state government. But we have no doubt it is also going to take a major toll on many of the bureau employees and the entire community of Deer Lodge.

Do the benefits to the public outweigh the costs to Deer Lodge residents in this situation?

That’s up to the people of Montana to decide. And they’ll have a chance to make a point on the matter during the upcoming elections in November.

Attorney General Tim Fox is solely responsible for where to locate the Title and Registration Bureau. And the decision on the Deer Lodge bureau offers some insight into where his priorities lie in his role as director of the Montana Department of Justice.

“Our overarching obligation is to the people who fund our services and to the people who rely on those services,” DOJ spokesman John Barnes told the Independent Record Friday. ” . That’s the primary consideration. But nonetheless, the agency does have an obligation to its employees,” which is why any bureau employees who want a job in Helena will get one.

There’s nothing inherently right or wrong about these priorities, but we’ll soon see if they align with the will of Montanans.

Editorial: https://bit.ly/29G7XYv


Great Falls Tribune, July 9, on tax breaks for businesses:

It’s tricky navigating the political minefields of property tax breaks for businesses, developers and industry.

Officials who approve every possible tax break can appear to be playing fast and loose with taxpayers’ money. But elected officials who won’t approve any tax breaks can be accused of being anti-business and anti-jobs.

We’d like to take a look at two issues in which the city of Great Falls, and other Montana communities, has a special interest. These are tax abatements - requests for state property tax reductions that go to a local authority, such as the Great Falls City Commission, for a final decision - and tax increment financing, a complex system that can improve a blighted area by offering incentives.

Here is a look at both subjects.

Tax abatements. Following are several major types of tax abatements allowed by state of Montana law:

-A new or expanding industry can apply for a reduced taxable valuation, up to 50 percent of taxable value for the first five years, during the first nine years after construction or expansion. A local governing body must agree to the tax break.

-Remodeling of buildings or structures, including commercial buildings, also can receive a property tax break, if the work increases the taxable value of the property by at least 2.5 percent. The new work is not taxed during construction, but the tax gradually increases from 20 percent in the first year to 80 percent in the fourth year and 100 percent in the fifth year.

-Historic properties can receive a 100 percent abatement for five years for any taxable value increase attributed to rehabilitation, restoration, expansion or compatible new construction.

-Industrial parks and business incubators operated by economic development organizations can be exempted from paying property taxes to the local governing body that approves the exemption. The Great Falls Agri-Tech Park doesn’t intend to request the break, said Brett Doney, president of the Great Falls Development Authority.

In these cases, the developer or property owner must request the tax break; it isn’t automatically granted.

Tax-increment districts

If an area gets blighted or an industrial area needs to be developed, a local government can create a tax-increment district. Once it’s formed, property owners continue to pay the base amount of their property taxes they were paying before the district was formed.

But property taxes from any new development in the district go into a fund that is used to make public improvements such as adding sidewalks, street lights, sewer lines, storm-sewer lines and other utilities. In some cases, the developer normally would be required to pay for these improvements; instead, the tax-increment fund pays for it. This can lower the burden on developers who might not otherwise do a project.

Projects in tax-increment areas still pay property taxes, including on the new work, but they can benefit from tax-increment grants approved by the local government.

So what does this all mean?

In general, the idea behind the tax breaks is to bring in new, high-paying jobs, or renovate rundown areas, by giving businesses and developers an incentive to come to a city.

It wouldn’t be a good idea to give out tax breaks if the development were going to happen anyway.

But it’s also not a good idea to refuse to allow any reductions and lose new business or business expansion as a result. Every town wants economic development, so Great Falls must be competitive with other communities’ incentives to draw business here - business that creates jobs, which help build a community’s tax base.

These are the general concepts. In a subsequent editorial, we’ll look at groups that have received the breaks from the city, and possible future debates over suitable recipients.

Editorial: https://gftrib.com/29VVzo2


The Missoulian, July 10, on how drug abuse is affecting Montana’s children:

It’s no coincidence that Montana is seeing an increase in its prison population at the same time that it is seeing an increase in the number of children in state care. Both are rooted in the same problem: a drastic rise in illicit drug use, especially meth.

The situation has reached the point of crisis; drug abuse is literally tearing Montana families apart, and local and state resources are woefully insufficient to keep up with the rising demand on our courts, our prisons and our child welfare systems.

It’s a costly crisis in more ways than one. In addition to the legacy of abuse and neglect being established in this youngest generation of Montanans, the sheer amount of money it would require to provide an adequate number of caseworkers, prosecutors, public defenders and prison guards - not to mention courtrooms, jail rooms emergency shelters - is staggering.

It’s time for a total re-evaluation of the way Montana reacts to child abuse and neglect. Instead of burning up ever-increasing amounts of money putting out more and more fires, local and state resources should be concentrated on dousing the first sparks of parental drug abuse.

Montanans can help at the individual level by providing the critical safety net needed to keep our children safe and on the path toward a brighter future, and we can do this by making use of the tools that are already in place in almost every community in the state.

One thing’s clear: we cannot continue on our current trajectory. At last tally, the Montana Department of Health and Human Services counted more than 3,200 children in foster care. Just five years ago, that number was 1,746.

Department records indicated that about half the children in state care were removed because of parent substance abuse, and about one in three because of meth use. This matches the increase in drug arrests, which state authorities say hiked by 62 percent from 2009 to 2015.

In Missoula County, the number of child abuse and neglect cases swelled from about 50 each year up until 2011, to 173 in 2015. Meanwhile, the number of new meth cases in the county increased by 137 percent from 2013 to 2015.

Similarly, Court Appointed Special Advocates of Missoula, which helps guide children through the legal system, has seen its caseload rise steeply over the past three years. At the end of last year, it counted 180 cases.

The majority - about 70 percent - of children removed from their homes in Missoula County are placed with family members or close family friends. Nevertheless, both emergency shelters for children of families in crisis in Missoula are at capacity, and the folks at Watson Children’s Shelter say there’s a waiting list.

Missoula could open a third shelter, and then a fourth - and build a second jail as well. Or we could dedicate these same resources to bolstering preventive measures.

No one disputes that parents who use illegal drugs put their children at serious risk of harm. In addition to the increased exposure to criminal activity, parents who use drugs like meth often expose their children to these drugs, even if their drug use doesn’t directly lead to abuse or neglect. But parents also cannot care for their children if they are in jail.

Montana has recently begun studying its child protective system and its prison overcrowding problems with real urgency. This has, fortunately, given rise to a promising list of recommendations both for the short term and the long term. Now, voters must make it clear to our next class of elected leaders that this issue is a priority that demands their attention and their commitment to supporting real solutions.

The next legislative session will provide a critical opportunity to ensure public money and resources are being used to the greatest possible effect - and that means stopping the problem at the source, before parents are thrown in jail and their children placed in state custody. Family drug courts, for instance, are a proven effective way of diverting addicts from jail by providing alternatives such as drug monitoring, addiction treatment and parenting classes.

And in the meantime? What’s to become of all those kids pouring into the state foster care system?

They need a safe place to live while their family situation is being sorted out, and they need an advocate in the legal system. Here’s where each and every Montanan can provide immediate, direct help.

Take the first steps to become a foster parent by visiting the Department of Health and Human Services website at https://dphhs.mt.gov/CFSD/Fosterparent.aspx, or call 1-866-936-7837 (866-9FOSTER).

If that level of commitment is too much, consider becoming a court-appointed special advocate. CASAs aren’t required to have a legal background, and training is provided. In Missoula, learn more by going to CASA of Missoula online at https://www.casamissoula.org or by calling 542-1208.

And if neither of those are feasible options for you right now, pledge your support to one of the local organizations working so hard to help so many of Missoula’s most vulnerable children.

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