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Tester visits TF, asks for county input


August 2, 2018

Shana Neesvig

TALKING INFRASTRUCTURE – U.S. Sen. Jon Tester (far left) stopped in Thompson Falls to hear from Sanders County representatives. Thompson Falls Mayor Mark Sheets (far right) addresses the water and wastewater issues the town is currently tackling. Tester has spent the last month visiting rural Montana communities giving them an opportunity to voice their concerns.

Sanders County was well represented, the room was packed full and extra seating had to be brought in. Everyone was prepared to address their concerns with U.S. Senator Jon Tester last Friday.

Mayors from Hot Springs, Plains and Thompson Falls, county commissioners, a school superintendent, business owners and representatives, chamber of commerce members and law enforcement officials all attended the roundtable meeting to cash in on their opportunity to speak, focusing on issues they wished to see addressed by legislation.

"We have been doing these all over the state and have focused on smaller towns in the last month or so," Tester introduced his purpose. "We want to know what infrastructure needs are in small Montana towns."

Without a second wasted, Tester received a lot of feedback in the hour-long meeting.

Thompson Falls Mayor Mark Sheets began the conversation asking for help with the town's water and wastewater systems. He commented that the town is up to its maximum debt paying for upgrades to the current clean water system, but the old wastewater systems are failing and cannot be replaced due to the small size of the lots they are on. To fix this problem it is recommended that a city sewer system be installed, a $24 million project. Sheets stated that the town has been looking at various grants to cover the project. Tester informed Sheets that if he applies for any grants he should let him know so he can get Thompson Falls up on the top of the list for funding.

Randy Woods, Mayor of Hot Springs, addressed his concerns that "federal money comes with huge strings attached." He added that so many conditions come with some of these grants, conditions that do not even pertain to Hot Springs. "When dealing with federal government, they want piles of paper. We end up spending $300,000 in paperwork for a million-dollar grant," he emphasized, "this money should have gone to the ground." Woods suggested revamping the federal grant program to make it more user friendly and to cut the strings attached.

Plains Mayor Danny Rowan spent his time discussing the encroachment of Lower Clark Fork River on the wastewater holding tank. With only 120 feet of bank left, Rowan is feeling the pressure to fix this problem. He commented that the facility could be relocated, or riprap could be placed to stabilize 1.2 miles of bank totaling an $8 million project. The problems are, the airport makes it hard to relocate the facility and Army Corps of Engineers has the "final say and permitting authority" on any riprap, and they have their own expenses attached to the project. "We are in a tight spot and trying to not send our problems down to Thompson Falls," Rowan closed.

Sheriff Tom Rummel and Undersheriff Lanny Hensley represented Sanders County law enforcement. Rummel stated that they need a larger facility.

"We would like to pursue a new sheriff's office, not a jail." He commented that they work out of an early 1980's building and the entire sheriff's office is confined to the basement "dungeon" area. Efficiency and morale would increase if the employees had more space. He added that a conference and training room would be a great asset for them.

Hensley commented on the difficulty the sheriff's office has with writing grants because they do not have personnel to handle this task. They are all working their law enforcement jobs, and then adding on the duty of applying for grants. There just isn't the time and ability to do this.

"Who can write up a grant application without being interrupted with a call?" Hensley asked.

Hensley discussed the issue that being one of the poorest counties leaves the sheriff's office understaffed; only eight deputies, two detectives, one undersheriff and one sheriff. "Frequently we have only one deputy covering the entire county," he stated. "There could be an assault that takes over one hour to respond." This lack of staff develops a culture of lawlessness, creating a hide-out for criminals. "We need long-term grants to establish predictability and change the culture" in Sanders County, where drugs and burglaries tend to be the top criminal activities.

Only a couple of weeks into his new position, Superintendent of Thompson Falls Schools Bill Cain commented that he is working with Western Montana Mental Health Center (WMMHC) in bridging the community and schools in dealing with the trauma students have experienced.

"We want to start a community-based program, that includes moms and dads," Cain commented, adding that his number one goal is to make sure every child feels safe because if they do not, the rest it hard to do. WMMHC has some resources to help make this happen. Cain also commented the costs associated with maintaining an old facility are quite cumbersome, especially when located in a poor community where 40 percent of the student body receives free and reduced lunches.

Clark Fork Valley Hospital (CFVH) was represented by Carla Neiman, Chief Financial Officer, who reported that the hospital had a record year in 2017. They attribute the successful year to the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid expansion, resulting in 10 percent more county residents able to receive medical care. Not only did the hospital benefit, but so did the community with having health insurance coverage to receive preventative medical care, in comparison to receiving medical care when they end up in the emergency room which is costlier.

"Staffing at CFVH is our biggest problem," Neiman expressed, adding that it is a challenge for new employees to find a rental and affordable housing is not available. Dan Claridge, Thompson River Lumber, agreed with Neiman. "It is really hard to bring people in when there is a lack of affordable housing," he commented adding that it is hard to get experienced workers to come here because there just isn't housing available.

The lack of affordable housing took Tester by surprise. Most Montana counties are trying to get people to move in, but Sanders County is is growing.

Carla Parks said that "everything you are hearing right now is because of the poverty in the area." She added that the wealthier cities need to help more so the "poor do not continue to become poorer."

Sanders County Commissioners Carol Brooker and Tony Cox refrained from commenting so others could discuss their concerns. They both thanked Tester for his fight in keeping the Secure Rural Schools (SRS) and Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PiLT) funding available as the county has benefitted from both these funding sources.

Tester wrapped up his visit to the county and proceeded to make his way to another roundtable session in Superior. Upon his departure he promised to "go back and look at making grants more user friendly." He realizes that "rural communities just cannot do it alone."


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