Great Falls Is Not Filled With Bigots

In light of some of the recent chatter around town I thought this would be a good time to offer my own opinion on the character of my hometown.

I grew up in Great Falls in the 1960’s and 1970’s. I raised my own two daughters here and helped to get a couple of my grandkids started right here in the Electric City, so I take strong exception to some of the disparaging, insulting, and divisive comments which have made it into the local news recently about the kind of community this is and people who live here.

Despite what some of the loudest most obnoxious local voices would have you believe, the overwhelming majority of folks in this community are not bigots, homophobes, racists or haters.

I’ve always known the people of Great Falls to be good, kindhearted, give-you-the-shirt-off-their-back kind of folks who couldn’t care less about who you love or the color of your skin.

In Great Falls you will always get a fair shake as long as you’re not a jerk and are willing to work hard and reciprocate that fair treatment with respect and honesty.

Are there jackasses in this town? Sure, just like in any other town. But when someone magnifies the exception and dishonestly and tries to convince others that it’s the rule for their own selfish reasons, we should call it what it is – horse excrement.

So don’t believe the lies, Great Falls. This is a good community filled with good people who believe in the principle of ‘live and let live’, but who also understand that ‘live and let live’ is a two-way street.

Books In Great Falls Public Library Dumpsters

I posted this today on my personal Facebook page regarding a picture making the rounds on social media:

“I’ve had several folks bring this to my attention today. A couple of dumpsters full of books behind a public library is a head scratcher for sure.”I’ve had several folks bring this to my attention today. A couple of dumpsters full of books behind a public library is a head scratcher for sure.

It’s my understanding that the books were donated and the Great Falls Public Library doesn’t have the room or the time to properly place and manage the books.

It’s not a good look for sure and some clarification from the library would be helpful.”

The Great Falls Public Library commented the following response:

“Hi Rick! The Friends of the Library have a wonderful used book sale each May. The volunteers spend hours collecting and organizing donated books for the sale. This year they raised over $14,000 to support the Library and we are so grateful for their efforts. The last days of the sale include 1/2 price sales, $5.00 sack sale and a special after sale day offering as many items as you want for $5.00. The Friends try to work with local non-profits to find good homes for the books that don’t sell but some of the books were not wanted by anyone. The Library did not have room to store the final leftover books so they were disposed of in the most economical way possible.”

Uh-Oh, Another ‘New’ Casino In Great Falls?

“Oh no! Another new casino in Great Falls!”.

Sorry, but that complaint is kind of misleading, because gaming licenses are tied to liquor/alcohol licenses which are controlled by the state and apportioned to communities according to population.

Think Whack-a-Mole. One has to close before another pops up. We haven’t had any “new” additional casinos here for a long time.

I’ve said this before, but because of the misperception about how our local economy works I’ll say it again: The City Commission has no legal authority to prevent any business, including a casino, from opening as long as that business meets all of the safety, permitting, zoning and state licensing requirements.

It is a common misunderstanding that the City of Great Falls local government picks and chooses which kinds of businesses we allow to open and operate here. We do not.

How many times have you heard, “Why don’t they bring in (fill in the blank)?”

There is no “they”. This is a free market economy and the kinds of businesses that open and succeed or fail in Great Falls is determined by market forces, not the City Commission or City Manager etc.

Local government can help shape the regulatory, development, and tax environment to a certain degree, but beyond that it’s up to what the marketplace will support.

If you don’t like the kinds of businesses or developments “they” are “bringing in” to Great Falls and think “they” should “bring in” the kind of businesses or developments you would like to see here, then here’s a suggestion:

Put a business plan together, invest your own money, apply for a big ol’ loan, or get a group of investors together and open that business or build that housing subdivision.

Put some of your own skin in the game – then maybe you’ll understand what a huge risk it is and how hard it is to actually start and run a profitable enterprise.

Do You Want Great Falls To Grow?

It’s time to update our Growth Policy, Great Falls.

It may come as a surprise to some folks but there are a significant number of Great Fallsians who don’t want our city to grow at all, they’re happy with things exactly as they are here in the Electric City.

I get it. Take a look at Bozeman and you see why people here in Great Falls are skeptical about the concept of ‘growth’. Using the ‘Goldilocks And The Three Bears’ story as an analogy, well, that Bozeman porridge is too hot.

But here’s the deal – Great Falls is going to grow whether we like it or not. The question is this: What kind of growth do we want and how do we manage that growth?

That’s where the Growth Policy comes in, and the process has already started.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent City of Great Falls press release:

“Join us in creating a roadmap for tomorrow, one that reflects our shared values and aspirations. The City of Great Falls is calling on members of the community to serve on its Growth Policy Steering Committee.
Apply today: https://greatfallsmt.net/planning/growth-policy-update.
Applications are open until 5PM on April 12, 2024.”

Whether you like your porridge hot or cold (I prefer it ‘just right’) now’s your chance to get involved in shaping the future for our community. Even if you aren’t selected to be on the Growth Policy Steering Committee there will be many opportunities for your input and voice to be heard, but only if you make the effort to participate in the public process over the coming months.

So stay tuned and stay engaged.

Let’s Talk Public Funding Facts, Great Falls

On January 16 at the Great Falls City Commission meeting I proposed an initiative to meet a process deadline which would have then given the City Commission, the library board, and the public three months time (90 days) to review and have a discussion about a 30-year-old agreement between the City and the Great Falls Public Library Board of Trustees. The agreement would have been discussed and reviewed in that three month period and could have been renewed as is, renewed with amendments, or terminated.

Some say the initiative was proposed too suddenly, that there wasn’t enough time given for the commission to vote on opening a 3-month window of opportunity to review the agreement. It seems to me the urgency of considering City budgets in light of the public safety funding for police, fire and courts was important enough to move quickly and open discussion on the library funding agreement.

There was an immediate deadline looming to open that discussion by Commission vote with no final decisions needed until the three month period of review concluded.

The 7 mills of funding in the agreement (current value of which is about $900,000) was not intended to provide taxpayer dollars for the library exclusively in perpetuity without any possibility for review or discussion.

The agreement is up for renewal each and every year and the funding is discretionary, as the library board, City finance personnel, and the city commission have all clearly understood every year during budget time.

My initiative was a request to publicly review that agreement before the FY25 budget is passed and before the automatic renewal of the agreement.

There is an argument that citizens were fully aware of the 7 mill funding agreement and its dollar amount and therefore this agreement should not be reviewed because it is ‘written in stone’ as only for library use, even though it has an annual renewal date and was never voted upon by the citizens of this community.

It follows that if citizens were fully aware and educated about the 7 mill funding agreement, then they also would be fully aware of its annual renewal and would therefore not have assumed it is 7 mills only for library expansion for ever and ever, amen.

The library currently receives 24 mills of City funding (15 more than they received prior to the levy vote in June of last year) 17 mills of which are voted mills, and 7 mills (those in the agreement) having never been voted on by Great Falls voters – they are general fund mills that can and should be used for ANY City priorities and which are not limited to library expansion projects.

Priorities can and do change, especially over a 30 year period.

I have been a regular GFPL patron, library card holder, frequent service user, and supporter of our library and its historical role in our community for many, many years. I value the role of our library and its staff and board.

My concerns are about funding priorities without regard to political or ideological considerations. Period.

I was reelected to the Great Falls City Commission a little over two months ago based on a clear, unambiguous, and repeated platform of public safety and public infrastructure being the top priorities for Great Falls. I will continue to hold those as my top priorities when considering budget issues going forward.

At the very least we should have a full, open and honest public discussion about this issue – and the sooner the better.

Israel-Hamas War Comes To Great Falls

Over the past few months I have received quite a few emails in my city commission mailbox from local constituents with the subject line, ‘Reaffirm your commitment to America’s closest ally, Israel.

The content of the email is the same but from many different local folks concerned about the ongoing war in Israel. You can read it in its entirety here.

Here is a paragraph from the email:

“Israel is under constant threat, both from terrorists such as Iran’s proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, and from those who undermine Israel’s right to exist. The attacks of October 7 destroyed any assumptions that Hamas’ had a pragmatic interest in governing Gaza – its sole goal is the elimination of Israel and the Jewish people. As such, calling for a ceasefire gives Hamas credit and authority it no longer deserves. Calls for a ceasefire are not reasonable or realistic, nor is it the only way to guarantee that Palestinian civilians will be protected. Existing efforts to allow for food, water, medicine, and other essential assistance to flow into Gaza and to the people who need them must be bolstered.”

I agree with the sentiments expressed here – especially the point that a ceasefire is not “reasonable or realistic” given the circumstances.

So yes, I reaffirm my personal commitment to Israel and to our Jewish community in Great Falls. But I also recognize the horror of war and its hellish impact on all of the civilians caught in the crossfire.

And certainly I recognize that there are others in Great Falls who hold a different viewpoint from my own concerning calls for a ceasefire. One of them is Eamon Ormseth, who was invited by the Great Falls Public Library to give a presentation on Palestine. You can view the entire one hour talk, given on January 4th, here.

Ormseth is an activist with a group called “Montanans for Palestine” and he organized a rally in Great Falls the day after his talk at the library. The rally was covered by Joe Taylor at the Fairfield Sun Times and here is an excerpt from that reporting:

“I have friends whose friends have been killed in the Israeli airstrike on the church, the orthodox church in Gaza. Another friends’ relatives are sheltering in the catholic church in which Israeli snipers killed two of them, two people in that church recently. And a friend of a friend was just murdered by the Israeli army very close to where I live. So, it’s very personal. I have friends in Palestine and I just don’t see how the United States continues to support such a brutal occupation,” said Ormseth. 

Around 8-10 people were at the rally at the Civic Center and chanted along side Ormseth, “Free Palestine” “Stop the Bombing” and “Cease Fire” were among the chants.

We live in a such a time that even far-flung controversies and wars can reach across the distance and touch us right here in Great Falls, Montana. Interesting times indeed.

Local Tax Facts

Not only are taxes inevitable – it can be hard to understand how they get calculated, assessed, and collected.

The finger pointing concerning taxes in Montana is in full swing – counties blaming cities, the state blaming counties and cities, cities blaming the state, state legislators blaming county and city commissioners, county and city commissioners blaming state legislators, Democrats blaming Republicans and vice-a-versa, cats blaming dogs, etc.

Angry citizens blaming all of the above.

Here are a few basic facts to help sort through it all and answer some questions I’ve been hearing lately from Great Falls taxpayers:

  • All property valuations in Great Falls are assessed by the State Department of Revenue, not the City of Great Falls.
  • All of the various classes of property tax rates are determined by the State Legislature, not the Great Falls City Commission, City Manager, or Finance Director. Those current basic multiplier rates are 1.89% for commercial property and 1.35% for residential. Multiply your assessed value times the class rate to determine your taxable value.
  • The overall valuation of taxable property in a given jurisdiction, i.e., school district, county, municipality, is determined by the State Department of Revenue. This year the state DOR assessed an historic increase in newly taxable property within the Great Falls city limits.
  • The local option tax on recreational adult use marijuana sales countywide is calculated at 45% of the 3% tax collected by the County, not the 20% state rate as some have mistakenly suggested. The local 3% ‘weed tax’ will be distributed by formula to the incorporated towns within Cascade County and is estimated be about $240,000 per year for Great Falls. Not chump change, but only a small fraction of the cost of our public safety needs.
  • Local property tax dollars go into the City of Great Falls general fund, out of which our local police, fire, and courts are paid for. Other City services are funded through fees for services etc.

Existential Threat

We often hear the phrase ‘existential threat’ applied to various entities in various situations, but the meaning of that phrase is sometimes vague and misunderstood.

The modern state of Israel faces an actual existential threat right now, today, and has faced that threat every moment of every day since its establishment in 1948, being surrounded by nations dedicated to the destruction of her and her people.

It’s always been clear who the haters of the Jewish state and people are in the Mideast, but now the veil has been removed and we see clearly who the haters are in our own country, on our college campuses, in our cities, and even in the halls of Congress.

Pray for Israel and our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Pray for the United States of America.

Great Falls Homeless Camp Garbage Dump

On Sunday I received the following message and picture from a Great Falls resident:

“Hey Rick we went to watch 50 Watt Sun (at the Beacon) last night and under the train bridge this is what we saw! Who need to clean this mess up? I hate that this is happening in the city I grew up in.”

I contacted City Manager Greg Doyon on Monday to find out what is being done about this issue and here are the email responses outlining the course of action that is being undertaken:

Email from Mr. Doyon to me:
Commissioners: The location appears to be on Burlington Northern  property – I suspect it’s a displacement from the encampment of the 6th Street bridge...

Email from Mr. Doyon to BNSF:
I hope this email finds you well. Please be advised that I received [an email] from a City Commissioner.  I wanted to be sure you were aware that there appears to be a homeless encampment on what appears to be BNSF property in Great Falls. The City does not perform clean-up on private property, but would assist with the removal of trespassers using appropriate law enforcement personnel. If you’d like to discuss further, please feel free to give me a call.

Email from BNSF to Mr. Doyon:
Hello, Greg!  Thank you for sharing this information. I’ve notified BNSF Resource Protection. They weren’t aware of this trespass site and will look into it.

I will continue to follow up on this public safety and health/sanitation issue and report back to the public as needed.

City Property Tax Increase By $2.63 Per Month For $300,000 Home

Last week the Great Falls City Commission voted 4-0 (Mayor Kelly was not present) to accept the City Manager’s FY24 budget which includes adopting the proposed total allowable property tax increase of 4.38%.

The approved proposal includes the 1.92% permissive medical levy and the 2.46% inflationary factor increases.

Those increases would equate to the following for Great Falls homeowners:

  • $100,00 home – $10.51 annually or 88 cents per month.
  • $200,00 home – $21.02 annually or $1.25 per month.
  • $300,00 home – $31.53 annually or $2.63 per month.

The numbers could vary slightly either up or down depending on the final total property valuation for Great Falls released in August by the Montana Department of Revenue.

The additional revenue is general fund revenue to pay for the increasing cost, due mostly to inflation, of providing public safety – police, fire etc. – and for the 8% increase in city employee health insurance premiums.

Over 70% of the City workforce is under public employee union collective bargaining agreements.

Latte Factor?

I have never and will never use the ‘it’s only a latte a week’ line to justify a tax increase of any kind. It’s not up to me or anyone else to determine how much is ‘too much’ or ‘not that much’ for you.

I pay the exact same local taxes as everyone else in my hometown of Great Falls and I rely on the exact same city services as everyone else here, so I ‘get it’ when it comes to the seemingly endless ‘little lattes’ that add up over time from every single direction.

But I also want to live in a safe, clean, modern community with an appropriate level of public services – and that’s not free.

The times they are a changin’ in Montana and we can no longer rely solely on property taxes to pay for every school district, county, and city service being provided to citizens.

The solution, in my opinion, is state tax reform and I urge every Great Falls citizen to contact their state legislator and Governor Gianforte and ask them to make tax reform THE top priority for Montana starting now.