Bitterroot Politics

You get what you vote for…

Bitterroot Politics - You get what you vote for…

Unprofessionalism on display

When watching budgeting hearings with the county commissioners, one thing is abundantly obvious. These five men have no sense of professionalism.

It’s routine to hear joke comments throughout the discussions. It’s equally common to hear them joking that they are cutting someone’s salary in the budget. Or taking a department’s expenses out of the department head’s salary.

I’m sure they would say they’re just kidding and having fun with the department head, but it’s a subtle reminder that they are the ones in control and they can cut your pay at will.

Mostly though, it’s just plain unprofessional. Someone’s livelihood isn’t a joke. It’s not something they should be joking about taking away. The responsibility placed with them by the taxpayers is to wisely spend the money to make sure they are getting the most from their money. They’re not being paid to sit around joking with one another about the very real expenses in the budget.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against a little bit of levity in budget meetings. It’s a long, difficult process that can be stressful. But these commissioners are constantly making side comments that have nothing to do with the discussion or are at the expense of the person presenting a department’s budget requests. This just isn’t professional.

I would hope these commissioners would be capable of treating each department head with the respect they deserve and stop joking about cutting their salaries or their department’s budget. Each department has been running as lean as they can for several years and asking for a modest increase isn’t out of line and it is something to be carefully considered. It’s not something to joke about or dismiss with an offhand comment.

Take these meetings seriously. Setting the county budget is the biggest responsibility of a county commissioner. It would be nice if Burrows, Chilcott, Iman, Schallenberger and Hawk treated it that way.

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The legacy of cutting Title X

During budget discussions with the Public Health Nurse, Ravalli County commissioners showed yet more impacts from the cutting of Title X funding.

Aside from the obvious loss of vital health services for hundreds of low income Ravalli County women, the cut of Title X funds also resulted in substantial staffing changes in the Public Health offices.

When Title X funding was accepted, the Public Health office was staffed by six full time people.

Without Title X funding, the office is still staffed by six people, but only one is full time now. That means less service for people that need it. Fortunately the Legislature finally agreed to expand Medicaid coverage so some of these low-income women will again have access to health services.

It was also telling that when discussing the budget, the commissioners didn’t discuss the possibility of accepting Title X funding and any budget changes that would entail. That tells this writer that they have no intention of pursuing the acceptance of those funds despite all but Jeff Burrows saying they would accept those funds.

It’s too bad this commission, made up of all conservative men, are so intent on denying health services to those who need it most.

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The inappropriateness of JR Iman

This week the commissioners have been having budget discussions for the upcoming fiscal year. In the process they’ve had a number of different department heads in to talk about the budget and the changes they’ve made for each department.

JR Iman has gone above and beyond in making some pretty inappropriate comments to at least two county department heads.

The first was while discussing pay increases for the head of the Ravalli County Weed Department. Ms. Morris had requested pay increases for herself as well as some people in her department. She then explained that for her position as a department head she was paid less than any other department head. Her modest pay increase would bump her up a couple spots and reward her for her longevity and the work she’s done.

Iman, in responding to why another department head is paid more than she is, stated, “Well they bring in a lot more money than you do.”

Really? The amount of money a department head brings in is more important than the work they do? Never mind that the head of the weed department brings in substantial grant money and provides a service that is vital for the community. It was insulting to hear Iman put bringing in money above everything the weed department has accomplished over the past few years.

The second comment from Iman came in discussions with Deb Rogala, head of the Fairgrounds. She  indicated she has plans to bring in a maintenance person at a lower pay rate than she had originally budgeted since the previous person recently left. She was questioned whether she would be able to find someone with enough initiative to be a good worker at the lower pay rate.

Iman chimed in with, “He’ll have two women chasing him around, that’s pretty good initiative.”

Everyone in the room groaned but no one called him on this clearly sexist and inappropriate comment.

So in the end, it’s embarrassing that we have a commissioner who so clearly says inappropriate things in public meetings, but it’s equally embarrassing that we have four other commissioners who sit there and allow him to make those comments without telling him to stop.

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Part time commissioners

Being a Ravalli County commissioner sure is a cushy job. Look at their calendar this week. There’s nothing on the calendar for Thursday and Friday is scheduled as “office management,” which is the same as “we’re not really in.”

This week, you’re paying your county commissioners for 3 days of “work.” These are the same commissioners who earn at least $62,000/year plus full benefits and mileage reimbursement for driving to and from work.

For a conservative group of politicians, they certainly aren’t giving the taxpayers their money’s worth.

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Ready to start paying for the airport expansion?

Over the last few weeks, the Ravalli County commission has been going through their annual budget hearings. Each department comes and presents their budget requests. For the most part the commissioners just sit there and accept whatever they’re told. They’ll ask a few questions but that’s about it.

The airport budget hearing revealed some unsurprising news… at least unsurprising to this writer…

During the discussion, the issue of expansion costs came up. Last year, before the expansion plan was decided upon, a group of anonymous donors claimed they would pay the county’s share of the expansion costs. They would ensure the county had to pay $0 when it came to the expansion.

During the meeting however, the cost of expanding the ramp area of the airport came up. Then the airport manager let the cat out of the bag… the group will only pay for the expansion of the ramp beyond what is already there. That means the resurfacing that will also be required is going to cost the county $215,000. So much for the county not having to pay anything if it agreed to expand the airport.

Had this commission not thrown out the previous plan and simply moved forward with the approved and selected expansion plan, the project would be done and it would have cost the county less than it’s going to cost now. If you think taxes are high and services poor now, wait until the bill comes due for this expansion. This is not conservative governance. This is “take care of your buddies” governance.

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Too late again

Before the last election, the Ravalli County Commissioners discussed putting a move from 5 commissioners to 3 on the November ballot. They spent a couple hours discussing it and listening to public comment before it was helpfully pointed out to them that they didn’t have enough time to complete the process in order to get it on the ballot. Two hours of people’s day was wasted because the commissioners hadn’t looked to see if they could do something before proposing that they do it.

Fast forward 9 months and they still haven’t learned. The Forest Service has released their draft Travel Plan for the Bitterroot National Forest. This impacts what kinds of activities are allowed on the forest and shuts down a number of roads and limits motorized travel in certain areas.

So of course the Commissioners schedule a meeting to discuss filing an objection. Here’s the problem with that though… new Forest Service rules, which were widely reported in local media, only allow people who comment on a proposal to file an objection. Of course the commissioners didn’t comment on the travel plan update while it was being put together, because they don’t pay attention to those things… so when they scheduled this meeting, a Forest Service official kindly informed them that they wouldn’t be allowed to file an objection since they hadn’t commented earlier in the process. Once again, their inaction and reactive posture prevented them from having a seat at the table.

So then they fall back to their controversial and pointless “Natural Resource Policy” claiming that it is their “standing comment” which should give them ground to object to the travel plan. They also claim that since they were never specifically asked for comment, the Forest Service failed at following the rules of “Coordination,” – the crazy Tea Party notion that the Forest Service has to do whatever local government says. Now we see just what people have been telling them for years… Coordination is not a real policy but only one imagined by Tea Party separatists hoping to usurp the federal government.

Aren’t you glad you’re paying for these commissioners to get nothing done?

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Back from a break

After the Legislature ended, I needed a break from politics. Watching the crazy shenanigans carried out by the Bitterroot Valley contingent made my head want to explode. Rather than getting more and more angry, I stepped away to get some perspective and relax a bit.

I’m back now though and there’s plenty to talk about! From Nancy Ballance claiming not funding infrastructure was a good thing to the commissioners being reactive rather than proactive, and it keeping them out of the process one more time. So let’s get back into it!

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Revisionist history

Nancy Ballance, along with her Tea Party compatriots (aka obstructionists) Art Wittich and Carl Glimm sent out a letter to Montana newspapers claiming to tell the “truth” about the failed infrastructure bill at the Legislature.

You’ll remember that SB 416 was the final, major infrastructure bill to be heard in the House. It had passed the Senate with an overwhelming 47-3 vote. Then it hit the Tea Party central House where it needed 67 votes to pass. On the initial “second reading” it collected the needed 67 votes, ┬áincluding a vote from Ballance. Then, before the third reading could happen, somebody got ahold of Ballance and reminded her that she’s an obstructionist. Of course none of the other Ravalli County legislators voted for it either. It’s not like Ravalli County roads are in great condition… or none of the towns need funding for water proects…

Now Ballance is saying the failure of the bill was all because of the Governor and his party. This is just blatantly false.

Her initial complaints are about how the bill was presented as an “all or nothing” proposal. This is just foolish. The governor’s bill was HB5, which the House split into several different bills. This bill (SB 416) was a compromise bill from the start, sponsored by a Republican (not a Democrat). It changed the funding mechanism from 100% bonding to a mix of cash and bonding. This was a smart, balanced approach.

Claiming that Republicans passed all the critical funding projects is just not true. If all the critical/high priority projects were funded, there never would have been a need for SB 416. And yet, a Senate Republican realized that these infrastructure projects were good for the state and badly needed in many communities. It’s a shame Ballance couldn’t see how badly those funds are needed at home. The Ravalli County Road Department is woefully underfunded and understaffed and with the threats to SRS and PILT funding, constantly worried about being able to afford projects in need. There are plenty of projects throughout the county that would have been eligible for funding had SB416 passed, but now they’ll have to wait at least 2 more years.

Then she goes on to say:

1. We wanted a prioritized list of projects representing additional critical needs only; 2. We wanted to fund local school maintenance needs across Montana that were eliminated; and 3. We wanted the governor to use the available cash to pay for it and not borrow when cash was available.

Here’s where she’s trying to rewrite history. Never were these concerns addressed on the floor. I listened to all of the debate on SB 416 and the Tea Party obstructionists never said one word about wanting to fund school maintenance projects. If that was so important to them, why was there not a separate bill just for that? Since they broke out the original infrastructure bill into a bunch of smaller bills, why not create one just for school maintenance? Their lack of action proves Ballance and her buddies are not being honest here.

Ballance claims that there was no willingness to compromise from the Dems on this bill, then goes on to argue that it was right for them to block the bill because Dems wouldn’t fund it 100% the way they wanted. The Governor’s original bill was 100% bonding. This bill was a compromise to mix bonding with cash. So they’d already compromised! You can’t criticize a group for not compromising when you’re not willing to compromise yourself.

Ballance and her comrades know they’ve hurt their constituents by foolishly blocking a good infrastructure bill that would have been really good for their communities. Now they’re trying to rewrite history more than a month after the legislature. Don’t let them.

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It’s almost over

With the 2015 legislative session drawing to a close, the work of our Bitterroot Valley Representatives and Senators is just about over for a little while.

Most bills have run their course and are either headed for the governor’s desk or are dead. The budget hasn’t passed yet but is in a conference committee with the House and Senate wrangling over how little to fund important state services and whether to give state employees the agreed upon raise they negotiated last year.

In the coming week or two we’ll take a look at each legislator and how they voted on some key issues before the Legislature this session. We’ll also look at some of the lesser-known bills they dealt with.

When it came to important issues, the Bitterroot Valley contingent voted nearly identically. Pat Connell was the standout, voting differently than the rest of them. It will still be good to look back at the issues and whether the legislators voted to help those they represent or if they worked against Ravalli County’s interests.

If you have a specific bill you’d like to see discussed, feel free to mention it in the comments.

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Whole lot of nothing

Do you ever sit back and think about what you’re paying for a whole lot of nothing? Because if you’re a taxpayer in Ravalli County, you’re paying a lot for not much.

In this instance, I’m referring to the county commission. Ask yourselves if you can name one thing the commission has done in the past six months. Can you? You might be able to name one, because they did make the news by giving MAPS Media Institute a special day. Other than that though, can you name anything?

Probably not. That’s because the commission really isn’t doing much with their terms.

They’re not working on making Ravalli County more attractive to businesses. They’re not improving roads. They’re not working to fix a diversion dam that has killed a young child and prompts state officials to shut down a portion of the river when water levels get too high.

Given that there aren’t too many subdivisions for them to rubber stamp these days, what exactly is it that they’re doing all day?

If you believe the commissioners’ calendar, they’re busy with “office management.” Of course, anyone familiar with the work of the commission knows that “office management” is code for “we’re not here.”

For all of this not working, you’re paying at least $62,000 per commissioner. That means for five commissioners to do virtually nothing, the taxpayers of Ravalli County are paying more than a quarter of a million dollars.

But hey, you get what you vote for.

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