From Mineral County Information and Commerce

County Commissioners
Commissioner candidates spell out positions on issues
By John Q. Murray
May 24, 2006, 13:50

The four commissioner candidates spelled out their positions on rapid growth, forest management, and other issues facing Mineral County at a forum last Thursday.

All four supported the proposed county charter, all would consider increasing the size of the county planner's office, all would consider impact fees for new subdivisions, all opposed a new tax district to clean up garbage, and all had immediate ideas to prevent the potential loss of federal payments to forest counties.

But other questions revealed a philosophical divide, with two candidates supporting more open and accessible government, and two saying the commissioners and county financial information are already readily available and they would not approve additional spending.

The forum also highlighted the different priorities each would bring to the commission.

Voters will decide among three Democrats June 6 in what could be the last party primary for county offices. Also on the primary election ballot is a proposal to adopt a county charter with a provision for nonpartisan elections. If approved by voters, the charter would go into effect in 2007.

Clark Conrow, Larry Price, and Bill Schneider are contesting for the right to face Republican Dennis Hildebrand in November. To ensure fairness, the Chronicle invited all four candidates to participate in the forum.

The questions asked the candidates to introduce themselves, identify their priorities, then discuss the proposed charter and related recommendations, forest management, subdivision development, county growth and its aging population. The forum closed with the opportunity to challenge any statements by the other candidates and summarize why voters should choose them for commissioner.

Top Priorities

Clark said his priorities would be building the county's coffers. "One real big issue is to help to develop the finances to run the county offices," he said. "As we look at the many priorities that face the county, most all are financial." He said he would encourage the commission to develop a financial plan. "One of the things I can do fairly well is grant writing, and it may be one of the many answers," he said.

Larry said he would take action to address the decline in federal payments in lieu of taxes (PILT) and general forest health. "The lack of PILT disbursements can force a county to reevaluate all services. We must start now by setting realistic budgets showing actual costs and benefits," he said.

He also said he would reassert the county's own plan for managing forest lands, and push the Forest Service to increase the timber harvest to 130 million board feet each year to improve forest health. That would help all of the county's other efforts to attract investment, he suggested.

"No one will invest here until the forest fires quit closing our highways and quit polluting our air to where people can't go outside for a month every summer," he said.

Bill said he would bring his lifetime of business management experience to the county. The county should be viewed as a big business, and commissioners should closely examine its income and expenses, he said. There aren't many opportunities to cut spending, so the only answer is to increase the county's income.

"We need more income but we don't need to pay more taxes. The only answer I see is we need some kind of managed development--we need more people paying the taxes," he said. "We don't want a big boom but we need to get more people contributing." He said the county should encourage managed development to bring in more taxpayers.

Dennis said he would seek to build the county's infrastructure by preserving access to the national forest lands, creating sustainable jobs to support families, and preparing for the population growth coming from the Bitterroot, Missoula, and from out of state.

"We're the next frontier where people want to start coming," he said. He also pointed to the interstate as a potential resource for development. "I-90 has not been tapped to its full potential," he suggested.

Forest Management

It was clear from the discussion of forest management that all of the commissioner candidates had given serious thought to the decline of the timber harvest, in a county where 82 percent of the land is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. That could be the most dramatic issue during the next commissioner's six-year term.

After the Forest Service reserved lands about a century ago, it offered local counties 25 percent of the receipts from forest products. But in recent years, environmental lawsuits and other market factors caused the 25 percent receipts to drop so much that Congress established guaranteed payments.

That act is set to expire this year and its future is uncertain. Although the Bush administration proposed preserving the program for five more years, payments would be phased out by 2011 and county taxpayers would have to pick up the slack. To preserve the current level of services after the loss of those payments, some have estimated that taxes in Mineral County would double.

The candidates offered concrete proposals regarding forest management, with several expressing frustration throughout the forum about the decline of timber harvests.

"This county was built on the timber industry," Clark said. "It bothers me to drive up and down the roads and look at the dead and dying timber, from bug kill and fire."

Clark pointed out that the issue is not limited to Mineral County, or even Montana, and that many people in the Pacific Northwest are working on the issue. Western counties need to combine their efforts to keep pressure on the politicians in Washington, D.C., to come up with a solution, he said.

There must also be an education effort, he said.

"As westerners, we need to understand that most of these proposals are not written by westerners and the people who write them do not understand how important public land is to our heritage," he said.

Dennis said that the county and Forest Service have started cooperating on forest projects, and that he would seek to expand that effort. "That was lacking for a long time, but that has started within the last few years," he pointed out.

In addition to the top-down work from the Forest Service and the federal government, there should be more grassroots projects initiated by the county, he suggested.

"We need to have commissioners more involved going on field trips, not just listening to a presentation but asking on-the-ground questions. We should start now, not five years from now, when our term is ready to expire. We need to be proactive on this and get moving," he said. He said that after spending his career in the Forest Service he would feel comfortable working with the local ranger district and local forest on issues.

Larry expressed frustration over the relationship with the Forest Service. "For the last 30 years the people of Mineral County and our commissioners have been up front, honest, and truthful with the Forest Service and expecting the same back. Unfortunately, we haven't gotten that in return," he said.

He said the Forest Service undermined the county's resource use plan by proposing a memorandum of understanding that "trashed" the plan.

"I think we need to take a harder stand and not take anyone at their word, whether it's the Forest Service, the EPA, or anyone else. It's time to show me the money. Show me where you're at. Be up front if you want to come in and deal with the people in this county," he said.

Bill reiterated his plan to attract more taxpayers to the county to increase county revenue in advance of the possible end of the guaranteed funding.

He also expressed the sense that the federal government, with 82 percent of the land, should be paying 82 percent of the bills. "That's the way I feel about it," he said.

Self-Governing Charter

All four men supported the proposed self-governing charter, though none named specific ways that they might use the county's new flexibility.

Larry pointed out that Superior has had a charter for 10 years but not used its charter to force an issue. "Still, it is always there. It gives us latitude to look at different avenues," he said.

Dennis agreed that the charter would give commissioners the opportunity to "think outside of the box." Many issues are interrelated, and work on one issue helps you see the whole picture, he said. "Other things will start to fall into place and you'll get a great cascading effect that will be positive for the county," he said.

Local Government Review Recommendations

The candidates split over the other recommendations in the final report of the local government commission. Based on citizen surveys and comments, the final report recommended several changes the county commissioners could make today, if they chose to do so.

In general terms, Clark and Bill tended to support the way things are today, with no additional expenses, while Dennis and Larry favored changes that would promote more open government and greater accountability to county residents.

For example, Dennis and Larry favored publication of the county's combined annual financial report, and monthly reports tracking expenses against the annual budget. Bill and Clark opposed it.

"All that information is already available," Bill said. "I don't see that it's going to accomplish anything other than add more expenses."

"I agree with Bill," Clark said. "You can go down and pick up a copy of it at the courthouse."

Dennis argued that the information looks only at each individual department budget but does not show the county budget as a whole. "It is not readily available for an overall synopsis," he said.

Larry said during a recent meeting to discuss airport lease costs, the commissioners themselves could not find the relevant budget information. "We couldn't get an answer at the commissioners' meeting. It wasn't there," he said.

He said putting the information on the Internet would not represent any significant cost to the county.

"Most of this information is already on the computer. It takes just a little bit of time to take that and put it on the Internet. We're not living in the 1950s. We've got computers and the Internet and a lot of things that make it a lot easier for people to get access and know what's going on," Larry said. "The more people know what's going on, the less chance that those people making our decisions are going to do something we don't want."

The split was also evident in the recommendations calling for the commissioners to spend more time in the office, and hold outreach meetings outside of Superior.

Clark and Bill thought the current system afforded enough access, while Dennis and Larry called for more office hours.

"If the county workers need help, all they need to do is give a call and the commissioners come in and do it," Clark said. "I think it's just going to cost the county more money. My agenda is finance and trying to get enough money to make this county operate as best as it possibly can for citizens."

"I don't want to see any more expense," Bill agreed.

Larry said he strongly favored more open government and that he didn't know any other way to say it: "The government is there to serve its constituents. The more ability that the people have to see what goes on and talk and interact with the governing body, it's a win. I am not saying I want them to go to a full time position where it's going to double the cost to the county, but I think there's a medium ground in there that we need to explore."

Dennis said many comments to the review commission reflected a feeling that citizens did not have access to the commissioners. Outreach sessions by commissioners, or a county information officer, would not require full-time employees, but would involve occasional evening sessions outside Superior that are easier to attend.

"I don't think we need to be there five days a week," he said, but one commissioner could be available for people to talk to "as a sounding board" or to get items put onto the agenda.

County Planner

All agreed to look at adding staff to the county planner's office.

Bill was the most forceful, stating that the county planner's office represented the future of Mineral County.

"It's like your children are the future for the rest of your world--the county planning office is the future for Mineral County," he said.

Dennis said county planner Tim Readis doing a great job but that he is overworked and could benefit from part-time help.

Larry and Clark said they would consider more planning staff, but offered qualifications.

Larry said he would also look at the needs of all other county offices, while Clark pointed out that there is no physical space in the planner's office for additional staff right now.

"As this county grows, there's probably no doubt in any of our minds that these are things the county commission will have to look into," Clark said.

Chamber of Commerce proposals

The candidates did not support a Chamber of Commerce proposal to create a county-wide taxing district to fund garbage collection, which could help prevent illegal garbage dumping throughout the county.

"We'd be spending a lot of money and not seeing a lot of results," Dennis said. "If someone presents an adequate solution, I will listen, but right now, I don't see an adequate solution."

Clark said Sanders County has garbage collection sites and has been sued. A county worker was even killed at one of the sites, he said. We need to educate people about dumping and get volunteers to clean up the garbage, he said.

Larry praised Superior town clerk Brenda Schneider for organizing Superior's cleanup and finding the funding within the existing budget. "We did all that within our regular budget. Brenda did an excellent job--I don't know how she does it," he said.

Bill called for enforcement of the junk vehicle and nuisance laws. "I don't think taxpayers need to pay the bill. Taxpayers didn't make the mess--the people who made the mess should pay for cleaning it up."

The candidates were also mixed on the Chamber's idea about marketing the county as a retirement community.

Clark said as far as he is concerned, Mineral County already is a retirement community.

Dennis and Bill said retirees are an asset to the community, but that Mineral County also needs to attract working people and young families.

"We need a balance," Bill said. "I think we need to market more of the outdoors activities of the community."

Retirees are only one aspect of the picture, Dennis said. "We are having an influx of older folks coming here but we still have the rest of the age groups we need to be considering as part of our constituents."

Larry pointed out that the county has a great need for volunteers in the fire department and Search and Rescue, but retired individuals typically do not step forward to serve in those organizations.

He cautioned: "The biggest problem is our community really survives on the people who volunteer. We are in desperate need of volunteers and those do not come from the retirement community. If you think getting people to come in here as retirees and building a house is going to solve it, I'm sorry, it's going to compound it. Every one of those people retirement age is going to want the ambulance and the fire [services]."

Impact fees

All of the candidates said they would consider impact fees as long as they were tested in court and fair to all subdivisions.

Clark said the key is being fair to all concerned, "not necessarily based on who's who or what types of subdivisions would be developed." He also recommended that the impact fee not be a one-time fee but consider the long term.

"I really like what Clark said about stretching out the impact fee," Larry said. He emphasized that the numbers have to be realistic and reflect the actual impacts to the county infrastructure. Some jurisdictions are having trouble coming up with legitimate fees, and Missoula County is currently facing some court cases challenging its fees, he said. He repeated some words of advice he once heard: "Never forget, there's never been a subdivision that has made a dollar for the county."

"I will guarantee you that the cost to serve them is going to cost more than what we get from them," he said.

Bill said the fees need to be paid up front because the county must provide services from the time the people move into the subdivision. "A good portion of it needs to be up front where the service needs to be provided," he said.

Dennis emphasized caution. "I'm not completely sold on blanket impact fees," he said. "They're not appropriate in all circumstances. I think they all need to be looked at because there are extenuating circumstances." If you don't consider each subdivision on a case by case basis, he suggested, "you're just gouging somebody who has a pocket."

In addition, long-time county residents should be protected from rapidly rising property values, they said.

"Some of these older families that have been established in the county for years have paid county government for years and years. I think we have to grandfather these older places in," Clark said. If they subdivide, they would then lose their grandfather status and be subject to the current taxes.

Larry agreed. "If there's anything we can do locally as commissioners it behooves us to make sure we can do whatever we can to try and set aside the alarming rate of increase of the taxes. These individuals have helped through the years to volunteer, create, and build our county to this point. It seems almost sadistically cruel for us to turn around now and say, 'You've done all this, now we're going to take it in taxes. You're not going to have it to give to your children and your children's children.' "

The problem, Bill pointed out, is that someone buys the property next door and yours automatically goes up in value too. "That's not right. I think the people who have been there and established should be grandfathered in," he said.

Dennis pointed out that with an older population moving in, inheritance taxes are also important to consider. With 82 percent of the land federally controlled, the county may need special treatment for its existing private land so that it can remain in the hands of local families. "We need to provide for the offspring to be able to inherit that and have a valid place for them to live," he said.

© Copyright 2005 by MCIC