County is “sound” as it faces challenges

By: 
Eleanor Guerrero
Senior Reporter
Bill Bullock
Photo by Eleanor Guerrero Carbon County Commissioner Bill Bullock addressed Red Lodge Rotary on Thursday, Sept. 28, and talked about the state of the county.

Carbon County Commissioner Bill Bullock appeared before Red Lodge Rotary on Thursday, Sept. 28, to talk about the state of the county. He was optimistic overall but admitted in some ways the county was in “unchartered waters.”
Bullock had just returned from his first MACo (Montana Association of Counties) meeting and heard the complaints of the other counties. He grinned, “I thought, ‘We’re good! We’ve got this!’”

Regarding the county’s condition, “We’re in the black; we’ve got some systems in place, we’re moving forward.” He found a number of the counties complaining that locals and their judges or agencies don’t get along. But in Carbon there was no such disconnect. “We’ve got good staff, we want to install confidence in the county.”

He urged people to come to county meetings. “It’s the most direct form of government I’ve ever seen.” People come in, sit across the table from the commissioners and can discuss issues. “It’s clean, fast in form and it’s efficient.”

He admitted a share of challenges. “We as a county are in some unchartered waters.” He said former Commissioner Jon Prinkki retired before his term was completed and Bullock was appointed. Commissioner John Grewell passed away in July and Scott Blain was appointed to replace him in late August. That left two commissioners appointed and not elected.

Both Bullock and Blain will run in 2018, not this November, hoping to continue to serve as commissioners. Blain will run to finish Grewell’s term that expires in 2022. Commissioner Bullock will run in 2018, since Prinkki’s term will expire in 2018.

Bullock noted, “Another challenge was Doug Tucker. He’s had some legal issues.” He added, “We’re dealing with that.”

In April of this year, Tucker was charged with a felony theft for allegedly taking county items that would deprive the owner of use up with a value exceeding $1500. There are no major developments in the case at this time.
Bullock said Tucker was following “every direction of the county attorney. He has done everything that has been asked of him and even some things that haven’t been asked of him.”

Tucker is also the presiding officer of the Commissioners. Bullock said, “We’re dealing with that.”

On the positive side he said, “I can assure you the financial condition of the county is sound.” He stated, “We’ve passed a budget. We’ve balanced the budget.” The county has put some money away for capital improvements (buildings and equipment) and given all its employees “commensurate raises.” He concluded, “We’re in really good shape.”

Bullock looked ahead at challenges coming and concluded, “We’re the place people want to be!” In extolling the county’s forest access, its skiing, its rodeo, and gateway to the Beartooth Pass, he saw the biggest future challenge being growth. He said the Highway 212 project will bring four lanes west from Laurel, bringing weekenders from Billings.

He said the trick is to plan that growth so that it is manageable. He praised the county planner and staff and said they relied upon their recommendations. “They’ve got that stuff all figured out.”

He does not want people driven out by too much growth. “We don’t want a place we don’t want to reside in in ten years. We want a place where people still want to be here.”

When asked when zoning would come he said it may come eventually, but he could not see the need at the present time.

The biggest current issue was county facilities. “We’re out of room.”
He mentioned that the old hospital in Red Lodge was for sale (it sold at auction for $81,000 as he was speaking). Although the facility size met all the county’s needs along with possible retail rental space, the commissioners determined it required too big an initial financial outlay to undertake. There is a $20,000 transaction fee, $10,000 in tax and possible millions of dollars in asbestos removal, demolition costs and new plans.

More space for all county offices was one of “the bigger challenges in the next few years.”

The County District Courthouse is 110 years old and is too small for the district and justice courts, law enforcement and staff offices located there. They need to provide more services to more people.

Bullock opened the presentation to questions. When asked about the cutting of the State budget requiring all agencies to cut 10 percent and the closing of the State Office of Public Assistance in Red Lodge he said, “We’re going to have a very steep learning curve in the next few years. All our stuff has been met. The library has come to the county asking for money. Be great to make up the difference.”

However he said, “We can’t. All our funds are allocated.”

The OPI office will close in Red Lodge. It handles Children of Protective Services and Adult Protective Services along with food stamps (SNAP), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), heating assistance and other basic social programs that help those in need. Those services will still be available in Billings.

Betty Hecker spoke of continuing local need. “They (OPI) allegedly serve Carbon County and we see them once a year. Some people find it very difficult to go to Billings.” She asked if “some pressure” could be put on OPI to serve Carbon but Bullock could offer no hope. Bullock replied, “That’s the expectation...That it’s gone. We have no choice other than trying to pass some tax increase.”

Other issues discussed included working with the City, completing the Ski Run Road project and the general attempt to allocate funds to each district, not favor one over the other. Regarding relations with the City he believed it was a matter of improving communication. He has gone twice to the City to discuss issues like the cemetery.

Bullock concluded, “I have the highest level of confidence in our system of government having been exposed to 55 other counties. I want to do it our way. Ours is pretty good.”

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