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Yellowstone County’s introduction to "merlin" has not been smooth. Lines are backing up some 30 people deep in the County Courthouse lobby, as they wait to license or register vehicles.
"Merlin," or actually MERLN, is the acronym for the new software update that the Yellowstone County Treasurer’s office is trying to get operational to improve the processing they do on behalf of the state Department of Justice.
The new system will probably be an improvement, as soon as all the kinks are worked out, but getting the system functioning smoothly for all 56 counties slowed processing down greatly, all of last week, at the Yellowstone County Treasurers office. On Friday, County Treasurer Max Lenington went out and bought coffee and cookies for everyone – staff and customers alike – as a reward for their patience and perseverance. Sometimes a transaction is taking up to two hours.
At just the moment the Big Sky Economic Development Corporation (EDC) thought they were well situated to become permanently certified as a lender for US Small Business Administration (SBA) 504 loans, they learn of one more requirement which my lead to adding more members to their board of directors.
Brandon Berger who oversees the 504 Loan program explained that SBA has a requirement that the EDC board must be comprised of members representing, equally, four different groups – local business, finance, community, and government. Currently, 11 of EDC’s 15 board members represent businesses.
Berger said that the requirement had not been mentioned to them in past reviews of the organization’s progress to get permanently certified. “We thought we were there,” said Brandon — in terms of getting certified.
The situation poses a dilemma for EDC and board members discussed the issue at their regular monthly meeting.
Increase the size of the board? Or, discourage some members from being board members? EDC bylaws allow for as many as 21 board members. Adding six along with the judicious selection in replacing those who will be coming off the board during the next year could resolve the situation, said Berger.
It will be a work-in-progress.
The development and refurbishing of east downtown Billings "will change as the city grows, said Brian Scott of EDAW, the Seattle-based company that is overseeing the development of a master plan for an area of Billings that sprawls between the river and the rims between downtown and MetraPark. The master plan will direct future development as it occurs, and it will help take advantage of "opportunities as they emerge" in the years to come, Scott told gatherings of property owners, and city and county officials at two separate meetings last Thursday.
The development of East Downtown will be "incremental and opportunistic," said Scott, rather than "driven and political." He was presenting the draft of a plan, the product of many months’ work, that will be finalized in June.
Chief Deputy Attorney for Yellowstone County, Dan Schwarz, raised a concern to Yellowstone County Commissioners about a new rule being considered by the Supreme Court and the unauthorized practice of law in Montana. He submitted for their approval a letter he is sending to object to the proposal. Comments are being accepted, he said until April 20. Schwarz said that it's a case where they are using an axe when a scalpel would do. He said that the rule is so broad that it would require every government and business in the state to have "a whole staff of lawyers" to conduct most normal daily business. Schwarz pointed out that department heads and personnel officials in the county conduct negotiations and write resolutions and other documents and agreements that would be considered the unauthorized practice of law under the new rule. Complying with the new law would increase costs substantially for government and business in the state, he said. Commissioners approved the letter submitted by Schwarz. Commissioner John Ostlund said that he would compare its extremeness to that of a "chainsaw instead of a butter knife."
As the federal government reviews its needs for a new federal courthouse in downtown Billings, they are concluding that they need a bigger footprint than that originally proposed.
A Missoula appraiser will be directed to include additional area into the appraisal that the US General Services Administration (GSA) is conducting of the proposed site.
Amid discourse about the national economy, during a retreat of local economic development leaders, attendees heard some very upbeat comments as they sought direction for strategy for the coming year.
Montana is "very lucky," said Marilyn Floberg, "I think the stars are aligned right for us." Floberg was one of some thirty-plus board members of the Big Sky Economic Development Authority (BSEDA) and the Big Sky Economic Development Corporation (EDC) who met on Friday for a day-long planning conference.
Montana is at the top of the heap right now and we need to take advantage of that Lyle Knight told his audience as luncheon speaker. "We are a bright spot in the country," said Knight, the President of First Interstate Bank. "We are going to ride through this economic downturn just like we have others. We are relatively unscathed," said Knight, "and CEO’s around the country know that and are looking at the state." Such attention poses opportunities for Montana, which should be pursued.
While nationally, bond ratings for towns, counties and school districts are being downgraded in unprecedented ways, the bond rating for Yellowstone County has been boosted three levels, giving it one of the highest bond ratings in the country -- and the highest in Montana, including that of the state.
Standard and Poors gave Yellowstone County a AA+ bond rating last week, increasing it over its last rating of A+ in 2001.
What seems like nothing but a common sense approach for fiscally sound government to Yellowstone County officials isn’t being well-received by many representatives in the Montana State Legislature.
A bill which is projected to save $4 million in federal election costs for counties, statewide, is stalled in committee, splitting along party lines. Democrats are opposing it with the claim that it could disenfranchise some voters, and Governor Brian Schweitzer has vowed to veto it if it gets to his desk, according to Sheryl Woods, Association Director of the Montana Association of Counties (MACO). In fact, the Governor warned that if "effort is expended on it, it could have a negative effect on other bills he is to sign into law," said Woods
SB394 would have given counties the option of conducting federal elections by mail ballot, an approach to elections that could have saved Yellowstone County as much as $200,000 for each election, according to County Elections Administrator Duane Winslow.
With the news that SB 394 failed to pass out of the House State Administration committee, Winslow emailed Yellowstone County Commissioners early this week with the request that they consider consolidating polling places in Billings as a means of saving money.
The Big Sky Business Journal
P.O. Box 3262
Billings, MT 59103