Yellowstone County Commissioners proceeded with an action to abandon a portion of South 32nd Street West, despite the opposition of unions.
Representatives of a number of unions from throughout the state were present at the meeting on Tuesday to urge the county commissioners to sell – not abandon – an easement back to the property owner, since the property owner, Bay Limited (formerly Berry Y&V), is not a union shop -- and they claim the company is not hiring locally.
Henry Cellmer, Laurel, Manager for Plumbers and Steamfitters Local No. 30, said, “I’m not sure we should give away property when we could sell it to Bay Limited,” who he identified as an out-of-state company “with no interest in hiring locally.” Cellmer said about Bay Limited -- a fabricator of heavy equipment and materials destined for the oil fields of the Bakken and Canada -- “they want to pay half our wages to their people.”
Cellmer pointed out to commissioners that an easement is a property right and that the City of Billings routinely sells easements back to the property owners. He implored the County Commissioners to seek an attorney general opinion on the matter.
Located at 2450 S. 32nd Street West, Bay Limited petitioned for the abandonment of a county road easement on a portion of South 32nd, about 650 feet, which cuts through their work yard. The county has never built a road on the easement and the only “road” is some gravel placed by the property owner, according to the company’s engineer, Dennis Randall, Sanderson Stewart Engineers.
County Commissioner Jim Reno said, “We do not sell what we do not own.”
The County Commissioners made clear that the county has a long-standing policy on how they deal with unused easements, and about their support for hiring locally.
County Commissioner John Ostlund, added that they do not get involved in whether a company chooses to belong to a union or not.
Commissioners said that after hearing the complaints, they made inquiries and determined that Bay Limited is hiring locally.
County Commissioner Bill Kennedy said the commissioners have a record of insisting on hiring locally as much as is possible. As examples. he pointed to the rebuilding of Rimrock Auto Arena and the construction of the new federal courthouse. He said that he checks weekly with GSA (overseeing construction of the courthouse) regarding the number of local hires. When he hears claims that a company is not hiring locally, said Kennedy, “I take it very seriously.”
Curt Jones, Billings facility manager for Bay Limited, responded to the charges of not hiring locally, saying, “everyone we have now is a resident of the State of Montana.” He said they do all their hiring through Montana Job Service, which advertises positions throughout the state.
While it’s been projected that the company will eventually hire as many as 250 welders, they don’t have “that large need” right now, said Jones. They hire each week “based on activity in the shop.” He said they try to hire everybody qualified and they do some of their own training.
Deputy County Attorney Dan Schwarz explained that the issue of selling easements is one that the county and city have, long, differed upon. Schwarz explained the limited options available to the county in any attempt to sell easements, “since they couldn’t put it up for auction” and “we would have to appraise each one,” which would often be of greater cost than the value of the subject property.
Ostlund pointed out that there is a difference between dedications and easements. The Department of Revenue does not continue to tax dedications, but they do continue to tax the owner of property under an easement. While the use right of an easement may go away, the rights of the “fee interest owner” never do, he said.
The commissioners pondered, too, what would be the outcome regarding previous abandonments, were they suddenly to change policy. Also, it was noted that the county does not usually pay for easements, and property owners might start expecting the county to pay for easements were they to understand that they would have to buy them back.
Ostlund clarified a point of confusion that stemmed from another public meeting, last Friday, at which a statement from Kendall Hartman of Job Service was misinterpreted to say that Bay Limited only hired one out of every ten applicants sent to them by Job Service. Ostlund read an email from Hartman in which Hartman restated his point, “…I stated that only about 1 in 10 applicants were able to pass the welding exam for Bay. I did not mean to imply that they were not hiring the applicants that did not pass the exam. Bay has been hiring and training many of those not passing their test. They have not had to recruit outside of Montana, yet. My point is that as they expand we may have to recruit some of the highly skilled experienced welders from out of the area. As with any operation experienced workers are of value and it is very hard to totally operate with only inexperienced workers. Of course, company specific workforce training to train these potential employees would be of great value.”
The Commissioners also received a letter from Margie MacDonald, Democratic Whip of the Montana House of Representatives, urging that “…before they take any action to facilitate the workings of a private enterprise with public largesse,” to use their “considerable influence to make sure this business in fact benefits the people of Yellowstone County and Montana.” She pointed out that Local 30 has the ability to provide “high quality, skilled Montana based workforce for Bay’s projects,” and that the union has the capacity to do training for the company.
She wrote, “Partnership with a union workforce lessens the burden on public services because the workers and their families have access to critical benefits, including decent health care and retirement plans.”
Other union representatives spoke on the matter before the commissioners. John Roeber, Butte, business manager for Montana boilermakers, suggested selling the easement to Bay Limited and then using the money to re-locate people in Helena, Missoula and Butte, who need jobs, to Billings.
Rebecca Ridel, Billings, Local 1686, said, “I don’t think we should do anything to assist businesses that have no intention of hiring locally.”
Union representatives were invited to attend meetings that Steve Arveschoug, Director of Big Sky Economic Development, plans to hold with Bay Limited in the near future about how to help local people meet the qualifications required by the company.
Cellmer attended last month’s meeting of the Yellowstone Economic Development’s executive committees, questioning their support and active effort to secure a state subsidy for job training for Bay Limited. At that time, too, he raised the issue of whether the company was hiring locally and about their pay scale.
Cellmer, who oversees the operation of a training center in Billings for union welders, said that he had met with officials at Bay Limited but they weren’t interested in using his training facility. They said that they have their own training facility in Texas, said Cellmer.
Discussion among the economic development agency’s board members was that they believed that Bay Limited would hire as much locally as possible, but that there potential demand for welders could very well exceed what is available locally. As to what is being paid, it was noted that they would have to pay a wage that would keep welders from going to The Bakken where they are making considerably more than $19 an hour, which Cellmer indicated was the prevailing wage.
“People usually stay where the money is at,” said one board member.
Another noted that there will likely be a lot of people coming to Billings as the energy industry grows. How long do they have to be here to be considered a Montanan?
Cellmer explained that his training facility, which has been in place since 1905, usually accepts about 20 new applicants a year, for training that can take up to two years. They receive about 60 applicants a year, he said. Some kinds of welding requires five years of training, an area of training that is more addressed by the College of Technology in Billings. “We focus on pipefitters,” said Cellmer.
Becoming a training center for a company like Bay Limited would require that his facility expand, Cellmer said. He also said that it would require Bay Limited to become unionized.
The Big Sky Business Journal
P.O. Box 3262
Billings, MT 59103