While Yellowstone County Commissioners approved an architectural plan to expand judicial offices on sixth floor of the County Courthouse as adequate to meet the needs of a new judge, the judges of the 13th District Court do not agree.
At the crux of the disagreement is the issue of where to locate the Self Help Law Center (SHLC).
Yellowstone County Commissioners made clear at their weekly board meeting that they believe they are providing, as they are required to do by state law, space adequate enough to meet the needs of the 13th District Court, accommodating quarters for an additional judge, providing necessary security, and space for the Self Help Law Center. Even though District Court is a state administered agency, counties are required to provide space for court rooms and offices. The Self Help Law Center is also a program of District Courts.
CHS Announces It Will Protest Tax Bill
from The Laurel Outlook
CHS Inc. has filed notice with Yellowstone County Treasurer Max Lenington that the company is protesting payment of more than half of the property taxes it has been assessed for 2009.
A letter sent by certified mail to Lenington, dated Nov. 24, included checks for the first installment of the 2009 tax payment for $3,380,957. Taxes being paid under protest amount to just over $1.8 million, more than 55 percent of the company’s taxes that were due.
The county may not distribute the protested taxes which are held in escrow until the protest is resolved, Lenington said.
He was surprised when he received the protest. “I have been working with CHS on some other tax issues and nothing was mentioned to me that they intended to protest their tax payment,” Lenington said.
US Congressman Denny Rehberg will be the keynote speaker for a meeting of the newly formed Yellowstone Young Republicans (and young at heart) on Jan. 9. State Senator Taylor Brown will emcee the meetings which will be held at Beartooth Harley Davidson, 6 p.m.
Reno Announces Re-election Bid
Touting Yellowstone County as among the best well-managed counties, County Commissioner Jim Reno announced his re-election bid to remain part of the “team” he credits for the management of county government.
Among a gathering of supporters on the Courthouse lawn on Monday, Reno officially announced his 2010 candidacy for a third six-year term as a Yellowstone County Commissioner.
Reno, a Republican, lauded his fellow commissioners, John Ostlund and Bill Kennedy as part of the team that “I’d put up against anyone.” “We are trying to run the county the way you would your family budget,” said Reno. Reno pointed out that the county opted to forego $700,000 in spending authority, this year, because “we didn’t need it and it belongs in your pockets and not ours.”
Reno highlighted as his top three goals for his third term:
* Expanding county business online for the convenience of “county customers.” “In this technology age one should be on-line rather than in-line,” he said.
* To continue with the rebirth of MetraPark.He advocated for more dirt-related events outside.
* To continue with the frugal management of resources for public roads. Closely managing of funds “makes paving possible,’ said Reno.
The demolition of the MDU building, part of the process of preparing for the construction of the new federal building in downtown Billings, is starting to have greater impact on downtown -- most specifically for county government which shares much of the two block area involved.
This week, the county was asked to accommodate an alley closure and to temporarily move county officials’ and judges’ parking spaces, so that what remains of the old MDU building can be imploded and removed. The request came from the General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency responsible for building the new $80 million facility. Mark Hackley, the GSA’s liaison with local entities, talked with a number of county officials in a phone conference on Monday.
As always, parking space is a hot topic in downtown Billings. County officials noted that the matter of closing the alley is a City of Billings decision, and the contractor would have to get a permit from the city. The county’s primary concern is that of parking and compensation -- compensation not just for the parking, but also for past agreements they have made with GSA.
Hackley proposed closing the alley that runs north and south, next to the courthouse, and to only allow traffic to enter and exit at the north end. They also want to temporarily restrict the parallel parking, for perhaps a ten-day period, beginning Monday, January 11, along the alley back of the courthouse. Hackley said that the contractor will provide the appropriate signage, and three people to direct traffic during that period.
County officials said they could shift parking by utilizing half of the public parking area next to the courthouse; doing so will significantly impact the availability of parking for the public. Chief Deputy County Attorney Dan Schwarz was especially concerned about the timing of the parking-crunch which coincides with the commencement of a triple homicide trial that involves 400 jurors needing to be able to access the courthouse for jury selection.
Yellowstone County Director of Finance Scott Turner said that using those parking spaces would require compensating Diamond Parking with whom the county has a contract to manage parking. He said that GSA would probably have to pay the daily parking rate for each space to Diamond, which could amount to as much as $3000.
Hackley was surprised at having to pay for the parking. He said that he thought the county owned the lot and did not know that they had a contract with Diamond. County officials were surprised that GSA didn’t expect costs to be associated with acquiring additional parking.
Hackley said that he was not authorized to make any commitment about the parking costs and would inquire from those who “signed the checks.”
The County Commissioners said that they would like to see a written plan about how they will manage the traffic, emphasizing that to exit the alley right next to the courthouse building is exceedingly dangerous for pedestrians.
They also wanted written confirmation that there would be reimbursement for parking.
Commissioners were concerned about getting reimbursed given that they only recently received the $10,000 that they were to receive GSA for an easement of 26th Street in front of the sheriff’s department to access the construction site. And, they have not yet received payment for the property they sold in the condemnation proceedings initiated by the federal government. Nor has the City of Billings been compensated for 26th Street, so they will not record the easement agreement that the county has with the GSA.
Hackley explained that the county would receive payment by mid-January. He said that the hold-up has been awaiting the approval of the Department of Justice. That is expected this week, he said, and it will then be forwarded to the US Attorney’s office who after his approval will forward the check.
The easement raised another issue of concern for the county commissioners. They explained to Hackley that contractors and sub-contractors are using 26th for both coming into the site and leaving, which, according to their agreement, they are not supposed to do. They are supposed to exit the site on 26th as it intersects with 2nd Avenue.
Hackley said that he was aware of that and had had at least three discussions with the contractor about it. He said he would bring it up again.
The commissioners said that the remedy is forthcoming because the Sheriff’s Department is going to start issuing tickets to those caught going the wrong way on what is supposed to be a one way street.
Commissioner Bill Kennedy also said that he wanted “someone in authority to say in writing that the county has the first right of refusal” on the old federal building. That was one of the conditions that the county waned in its sale of property to the federal government.
Hackley said that they could not give that commitment because the decision of what will happen with the building must go through a disposal process. But if it results in the building being available for sale in what he identified as “Tier Three,” then GSA officials have said that the county would be given the first right of refusal. Kennedy said he would still like to see that arrangement in writing.
Kennedy also asked about the awarding of the contract recently announced by GSA. He said that he has received numerous calls from citizens wanting to know the difference in the winning bid and another that is purported to have been considerably less. Hackley said that he believed that the GSA has released all the information they can about the bids at this point in time.
A week ago the GSA announced the awarding of a bid for a $59.4 million contract with M. A. Mortenson Co., Minneapolis, to design and build the new federal courthouse. Many local government officials had voiced a desire that the contract to be awarded to a local firm.
Loan Program Plans for Improving Economy
The Certified Loan Company of Big Sky Economic Development Corporation (EDC) plans to beef up its outreach and improve customer service.
Although the past year experienced a decline in business, the two-member staff that oversees SBA 504 loans and EDC’s revolving loan fund (RLF), has been functioning at capacity. And, as the economy gears up there will be a need to add at least one new staff person, Brandon Berger told members of the boards of EDC and Big Sky Economic Development Authority (EDA) at a recent joint meeting. They also plan to increase their budget for marketing and advertising, he said.
Functioning with fewer staff than do competitors, Berger and his assistant Pam Bolin, still took top honors among Montana Certified Loan Companies at the Small Business Administration’s annual convention of lenders this fall. For the second year in a row the company had a higher volume of loans than any other in the state.
“Even though our loan volume was down last year,” said Berger, “we did better than anyone else.” They originated seven new SBA 504 loans in 2009, giving them a portfolio of 25 active SBA 504 loans totaling $13 million. Administrative fees on that volume generates about $70,000 annually for EDC.
They also have ten more loans “in the pipeline,” worth about $6 million.
Since EDC’s financial arm started business in March 2005, they have written 29 SBA loans for a total of $24.5 million, and seven loans from EDC’s self-funded revolving loan fund worth $402,000. The current RLF balance of loans is $190,000. Berger said that they don’t do as much business with their revolving loan fund, because it isn’t promoted as much.
“Our real customers are the lenders,” Berger explained, and what attracts the lenders is service. “Timeliness is key to the program,” he said. Lenders want to know that “we can get things done quickly. When they are convinced of that then they will bring the loans to us.”
EDC has developed a very good reputation among the lenders, said Berger, but he’s worried about maintaining that reputation as the number of accounts grows. Each account demands a certain level of service and as new accounts are added additional help will be needed. There is a certain level of expectation that must be met, “and we aren’t meeting my expectations right now,” he said.
The down side of the proposal is of course the additional costs to the program that was finally running in the black, but hopefully increased staff will mean increased production and increased revenues, said Berger. But, it will again probably be running “in the red” for a year or two, said Berger.
“It’s a tricky time to be adding to staff,” said EDA/EDC Director Steve Arveschoug, “But, if we want to growth the program we can’t just have Brandon and Pam working at it, and when we add to the staff you won’t see an immediate return on investment.”
Berger said that they plan to add an additional staff person in June, which is somewhat later than what they first planned, which was January.
Board member Patrice Elliott, President of Wells Fargo, supported the idea saying that she believes the program is going to grow, as private financial institutions pursue “a more conservative lending stance,” during the economy’s “slow turn-around time.” “We will get an excellent return,” said Elliott, underscoring that EDC has developed “an excellent reputation.”
Upon questioning about what provisions are in place should some loans “go south,” Berger said that to date they have not had that experience and have not really set aside a “loan-loss reserve.” But then, he said, they do budget very conservatively, and only take into account anticipated revenues from existing loans. He reminded that they are only administering the loans and do not actually finance the loans. “We do not have the exposure on SBA loans that we do on RLF loans,” he said.
“There have been a couple of businesses that have vacated their property that we made loans on, and while there are some minimal costs associated with that, in working closely with the banks involved, it seems we will cover them.”
The EDC board voted to approve a loan request for the purchase of a Lockwood business and associated property. Andrew and Heidi Kiel applied for a $135,000 SBA 504 loan to purchase Kid’s World Child Enrichment Center. The business has been in operation since 1997 and is the only one of its kind in Lockwood. Three additional jobs are expected to be added to the existing staff, reported Berger. Stockman Bank is the participating lender.
Even though the Montana State Legislature is not in session much of what will happen in the next session is already in motion. Between sessions, legislators, administrative officials, lobbyists and other public officials from throughout the state are meeting regularly in a wide variety of “interim committees” discussing issues and ideas that gradually jell into legislation which will emerge at the next state legislature. Yellowstone County Commissioners met last week with Ed Bentley, who serves as their lobbyist, to get an update on what he’s learned in attending some of those interim meetings.
In attending two or three interim committee meetings a month, Bentley said that he has learned that the Revenue and Taxation Committee, is spending more than half of their time on reappraisal issues, mostly as they pertain to residential and commercial properties – not agriculture. Also, among that committee’s concerns are expectations that the workers compensation fund costs are going to increase, and they worry about how to fill the gap in funding that has developed in the state’s retirement fund, which suffered severe losses in its investment portfolio.
Reports from the Fiscal Division consistently show that revenue projections for the state are going down, “faster than the state legislature projected.” And, the budget surplus may reach a point at which the Governor will be required by law to cut the budget. “I think the Governor is going to cut the budget, anyway,” said Bentley, He’s not going to wait until they reach that trigger.
Funds Tight for RC&Ds
Just when it’s most needed, the economic development efforts of Beartooth Research and Development Council (RC&D) received a cut in federal funding.
The non-profit organization that serves seven counties in south central Montana is one of eight RC&Ds in the state, all of which experienced the same decrease in funding for 2010.
Chris Mehus, Director of Beartooth RC&D, said that his organization is looking at a $14,000 budget shortfall following several years with no increases in funding. “Our expenses are higher and our income keeps going down,” he said, noting a previous cut three years ago.
Yellowstone County Commissioners met with the RC&D Board and Staff members and with Congressional representatives on last week.
The hope of the RC& D board members and staff that the shortfall will be picked up by local agencies was not enthusiastically received by Yellowstone Commissioner Jim Reno, who asked “Who cut the funds?” He said that he would find it difficult to recommend an increase in the fees that counties and other local government entities pay into the program, until he knows the answer to that question.
Reno said he found it incomprehensible, given the economic times, that rural economic development efforts would be curbed. “This is the time you need rural economic development,” he said. The RC&Ds provide a wide range of services under the auspices of the Montana Department of Commerce, involving agriculture, the development of natural resources, rural housing, and rural economic development.
Mehus said that the federal Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) support services were withdrawn from Beartooth RC& D, as well as a reduction of $5,000 in funding. The funding is appropriated through Congressional approval of the “ag bill,’ which funds the US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the NRCS.
Other funding through other programs will also decline, including those from the federal Economic Development Agency. Beartooth RC&D funding comes from a variety of local, state and federal sources. While the state legislature reduced funding through one program, they increased it in another, said Mehus. Local fees charged to local governments have not been increased since 2003.
Commissioner Bill Kennedy explained that the federal funds were not really cut, but the disbursement of funds have been shifted to programs that more directly benefit agriculture, which is what the agriculture community said they wanted. He said that the RC&Ds may be able to recapture some of the funding in the implementation of some of those programs.
Reno related a comment of a federal NRCS supervisor at a previous meeting that disturbed him. He said that Tim Oullette said that “economic development is not our intent.”
“During the economy we have now, how could anyone mumble that?” asked Reno.
Reno asked Mehus, “What do you see for the following year?”
Mehus answered that he sees their funding sources “remaining static or decreasing.”
Over the years, while dollars for projects have increased, the allotment for administration has not increased, said Mehus. “If you don’t have people to facilitate the programs,” he said, “you have made the programs ineffective.” He said that his agency could use three or four additional staff members.
The Beartooth RC&D has a proposed budget of $457,653 for 2010. Expected income is $443,574. Yellowstone County pays dues to the agency of $6,002, which is being proposed to increase $1,582. The City of Laurel pays $1,500; proposed to increase $395. The City of Billings pays $9,003; proposed to increase $2,373. The Big Sky Economic Development Authority pays $8,503; proposed to increase $2,241.
In total Beartooth receives $43,906 from local governments.
Beartooth RC&D also serves the counties of Carbon, Sweet Grass, Big Horn and Stillwater.
The Big Sky Business Journal
P.O. Box 3262
Billings, MT 59103