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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Page One News at a Glance

North Valley Library receives grant for insulation

Sen. Tester talks about visit to Iraq

Pantry Partners provides Christmas plenty

Hamilton City Council

North Valley Library receives grant for insulation

By Michael Howell

The North Valley Public Library in Stevensville has received a grant from the Stevensville Community Foundation in the amount of $1500 and a grant from NorthWestern Energy in the amount of $2000 to put towards the cost of insulating its building at 208 Main Street. A lack of insulation over the two one-story storefronts that make up part of the library building and the community meeting room has resulted in low temperatures in the library in the winter and high temperatures in the library in the summer, as well as expensive heating bills. The insulation project, which is scheduled to begin in late December or early January, is expected to result in a more comfortable climate for library patrons and staff. For more information, call the library at 406-777-5061.

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Sen. Tester talks about visit to Iraq

By Michael Howell

In a telephone conference with local newspaper reporters last week, Senator Jon Tester spoke about his recent trip to Iraq. He and Senator Jim Webb from Virginia flew into Kuwait City and from there journeyed to Ramadi, a city located in the Al Anbar Province that stretches west of Baghdad to the border of Syria. The two Senators walked the streets of the city and met with citizens of the area as well as with the governor of the province. Afterwards they went to Baghdad and had dinner with the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General Petraeus and the deputy prime minister of the country.

Tester said that he went into the country with an open mind but that nothing he saw or heard there changed his position on the war.

"If anything it cemented my perspective," said Tester. "I really think we need to start bringing our troops home as soon as possible. There's no ifs, ands or buts about that. It's just a matter of how soon and how orderly we can do it."

The province is the heartland of the Sunni tribes who dominated the federal government under the rule of Saddam Hussein. According to a news story published in the Washington Post last September, the chief of intelligence for the Marine Corps, Colonel Pete Devlin, issued a secret report in which he claimed that prospects for securing the Al Anbar Province were "dim and that there is almost nothing the U.S. military can do to improve the political and social situation there." The report noted that in the complete absence of any federal government power, al-Qaeda in Iraq had moved in to fill the vacuum.

Tester said that the military was doing a good job recently reaching out to the local Sheiks in the area and working with them to get al-Qaeda in Iraq out of the country. But, he said, the federal government is still almost irrelevant in the province and though the local governments are working a little better, the situation is not where it needs to be. He said that the governor of the province expressed a desire for the U.S. forces to remain. He has so far survived over 35 assassination attempts on his life.

"But I really think that as long as they believe we are a crutch for them and will stay forever, they will never be able to stand on their own two feet," said Tester.

"It was worse than I thought, to be honest with you," said Tester concerning his tour of the streets of Ramadi. "The biggest thing I still see in my mind's eye wasn't the fact that they've got no infrastructure, it was the fact that a lot of businesses got blown up. They've got electricity. But when we drove through Ramadi and walked the streets, the people's piercing looks were pure hatred. The rank and file, the John Q. Public, I've got to tell you, the body language, if it tells you anything other than 'get out of here now', then I'm totally not reading the body language right. It was unmistakable hatred."

Tester said that he also has continuing concerns about the lack of transparency and openness around private contractors working in the country. He said they are stealing taxpayer's dollars. He noted that efforts with which he was involved to pass a bill setting up a "wartime contracting commission" were successful. The bi-partisan commission, designed after the Truman Bill, was dedicated to preventing the waste of those tax dollars.

"It is not in effect yet," he said, "but those are the steps we need to take." He said that he spoke to about everyone he could in government about the contractor situation while he was over there, from General Petraeus to the military auditors, and everyone evaded his questions.

"They don't want to answer," he said, "but the truth is, we've got some problems with contractors, not necessarily those in food service, but the ones packing weapons." He said that the public needs to know how much they are getting paid, what the benefits are, and how the dollars are being spent. He said we also need to find out why contractors are even being used for security instead of military folks. He said if it's because we don't have the military folks to do it, then we have to figure out how to pump up military recruitment in the U.S. He said that the situation was not really the military's fault, in his opinion, but with the administration.

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Pantry Partners provides Christmas plenty

By Gretchen L. Langton

A long line has formed outside the Catholic Family Center in Stevensville by 10:30 in the morning on Thursday. People are patiently waiting for the beginning of Pantry Partners' annual Christmas food box distribution. This worthy event has been taking place since 1989 and grows bigger with each year. This year, two hundred families of modest means, totaling 854 people, pick up boxes filled with bread, fresh fruit and vegetables, canned goods, all the fixings for pumpkin pie (including pre-made crusts and whipped cream), turkeys, hams, and even Kleenex. At ten thirty, the brimming boxes are tightly packed side by side; it is a sea of color and angular textures. It feels like Christmas.

Kathy Belke, the tireless President of Pantry Partners, tells me that they provide for families as big as thirteen members as well as single individuals with regular monthly food boxes. She says these monthly boxes by no means feed a family for a month but the boxes do help hungry tummies at a time when housing and gas take a T-Rex bite out of people's budgets. This type of Christmas box is a bonus not available from most food banks. Donations make this event possible.

"It is very rewarding to see the generosity in this valley," says Belke. She speaks of the donors who give food; Super One donated 9,000 pounds of food. Others give money to the Pantry to buy food; Harvest Foods in Florence sells the Pantry food at their cost, not the retail value. Those who donate their time are also gratefully acknowledged by Belke who stresses that the Pantry is staffed 100% by volunteers. Belke is pleased to consistently receive help in the form of grants from the Greater Ravalli Foundation.

Jacquie Lyons, the Pantry's voluntary secretary, says they purchase 24% of the food for the Christmas boxes; 76% is donated. Lyons' job, befitting her sunny personality, is to greet folks as they sign in and dole out candy canes to the little ones. She gives out a series of colored cards that denote the number of members in each family in order to help determine box sizes.

When Lyons began volunteering ten years ago, she recalls that the Pantry "averaged 55 boxes per month." "Now it's 193 boxes per month." I ask her what has kept her volunteering for the Pantry for so long and she tells me, "It just feels so good." The appreciation is palpable in this festive setting.

Since the inception of this event, the high school has been sending students to assist in the heavy lifting. Joyce Klingler has overseen the student volunteers since the beginning and remembers in 1989 when she was using her own vehicle to shuttle a handful of students to and from the school. Now they use a school bus. Today they will make sixteen trips with a total of 37 student volunteers.

"Did you make eye contact with the person you are helping?" Candice asks a duo of students with boxes. She's been volunteering for sixteen years and her job, which she performs with ease and flair in her red and white Santa hat, is to connect people with their food boxes and student carriers to take the boxes and frozen birds to their waiting cars. These teens can be heard throughout the parking lots, "You have a Merry Christmas," one student says. "I will now," a woman replies.

I spoke with another volunteer, Lee Scharff. He was trying to eat but graciously asked me to join him. He is "the boss," several volunteers told me. He claims he just "stands here and yells" on the day of distribution, but I didn't hear his voice raised once. Speaking with this wide-grinning, big-hearted cowboy makes me misty-eyed. He is, too, as he tells me why he is here.

Philanthropy can sometimes be an art form, in that a person can so embody a giver that they inspire giving to perfection; it is humbling to be in the presence of such a person. I see this in Lee Scharff. He has inspired 22 members of the Back Country Horsemen Club to volunteer at this event. He (and his wife Linda) began volunteering "in the early 90s," says Scharff, because, "I want to help my neighbor; if I was in that position, I hope someone would help me. (Long pause.) If I was rich, I'd give it all away."

What he can give is his time. He and his wife also work with Haven House. "I do that tomorrow," he says about his distribution project on Friday. "We start shopping in November when the sales are good."

Between bites of soup made by volunteers to feed the volunteers, Scharff speaks from his heart. "If we could just get people to do this." His sentiments echo Belke's pragmatic words, "Donations are down; need is up."

Lee Scharff states poignantly, "We are not too far from having no middle class." Yet, those who consider themselves middle class have lived in this valley for nearly five generations. As he speaks, the goose bumps rise for two reasons. While other folks are pin-balled about the mall, bags under both arms and both eyes, the Scharffs are visiting those James Fallows calls "the invisible poor," the people who drop off the economic radar because they are without means to easily survive. In a valley where rent can eat up over half of a minimum wage monthly budget, there is little room for financial maneuvering.

Pulling oneself up by one's boot straps can only happen if one has the boots to begin with. Our culture is burdened by the ghost of Horatio Alger and his bootstraps. I hear it today from those who say "they [meaning poor folk] just don't want to work." This is not necessarily true. Statistics reveal that a majority of Americans are working harder (longer hours per week with less buying power) than they have in the past. Laziness is a mythology disproven by the low unemployment rate nationwide. People are working; their budgets are not. Particularly in the winter-time, in a valley fettered with outdoor commodities for sale (such as log homes), unemployment can spike near Christmas time when it is too cold to peel logs. Then there are senior who live on fixed incomes and single moms working two jobs and still not covering costs.

This is where Pantry Partners finds itself clambering to meet growing needs. As need increases, more food must be bought, transported, stored and distributed. The dedicated volunteers, like Natalie Darnall, Manager of Operations at the Pantry, are thankful for all the help they receive from the community, but there is so much more that could be done. Darnall, who volunteers at least six hours a week, says one immediate need is for a philanthropic electrician to donate some work on the nearly hundred-year-old wiring at their current location.

"We've burned up two printers," Darnall laments.

The Pantry could also use a van or truck (in good condition - no rusty lemons, please) that would facilitate the transportation of food. Currently, volunteers use their own vehicles to make pick ups.

If the Pantry could ask Santa for their dream gift, it would be that some philanthropist was willing to give them a piece of property in Stevensville with a bigger facility on it so they could easily meet the growing needs here. No harm in dreaming big for a good cause.

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Hamilton City Council

By Michael Howell

Loan approved for Mental Health Center

At its December 18 meeting, the Hamilton City Council approved a loan request from the Western Montana Mental Health Center for use in establishment of a new Crisis Stabilization Center.

The Western Montana Mental Health Center provides assistance primarily for substance abuse and mental health problems in 13 counties in Western Montana. It provides individual outpatient therapy, marital and family therapy, 24-hour emergency services, consultation and education, medication services and community-based rehabilitation services for adults and children.

The center's extension in Ravalli County, the River Front Counseling Center in Hamilton, currently has plans for development of a new home to house more patients and provide emergency intervention care. Program Director Kim Miller said that the facility is based upon a new sort of model that would involve two separate sides. One side would provide several group home beds for mentally ill adults. The other side would provide three beds for crisis stabilization of patients who do not meet the criteria for being committed against their will to Warms Springs Hospital, but need some sort of emergency treatment. A Psychiatric APRN would provide immediate care and counseling. The crisis care at the facility would be short term, from three to ten days.

According to Miller, the Center received grants from the state and Garden City Housing for the new construction but did not anticipate the costs of connecting to the city's water and sewer system. As a result they approached the City for a short term low interest loan of about $25,000 to cover the unanticipated costs.

Councilor Bob Scott called it a low risk loan on the City's part. Councilor Jerry Steele noted that the true shortfall in the budget was $26,950. After some discussion it was agreed to approve a loan for the higher amount with a maximum time limit of five years for repayment. The loan will have a low interest rate equal to the interest earned on the City's other investment funds. The loan was unanimously approved.

In other business the City Council:

• approved a revised job description for the position of a part-time Arborist. An associated motion to set a job description for Director of Cemetery/Parks Maintenance Supervisor failed on a split vote. Mayor Jessica Randazzo, who could ordinarily break a tie vote, was not present at the meeting.

• approved on first reading an Ordinance amending Title 12 of the Hamilton City Code, which deals with streets, sidewalks and public places, specifically the chapters dealing with the care of parkways and trees. Councilor Steele proposed an amendment to strike the second paragraph of the ordinance which allows residents to prune trees in the right of way. He argued that it worked against the new job of Arborist to allow unsupervised care and pruning by the local property owner. Steele's motion to amend failed due to lack of a second. The Ordinance was then passed with Steele casting the lone dissenting vote.

• approved on first reading an Ordinance amending the City Zoning code to prohibit the keeping of livestock and amend the definition of domestic animals.

• listened to comments from Councilor Mike LaSalle concerning the high turnover rate of city employees. He said that city services have suffered with the loss of 20 out of 44 city employees and the failure of the Mayor to fill vacant positions in a timely manner. Councilor Scott agreed and also attributed the problems to the Mayor's administration.

• directed the Mayor to pursue an investigation of alternative financial software. The city is currently using Black Mountain software which Councilor Scott called expensive and hard to use and did not generate the kind of reports desired. The Mayor was directed to seek alternatives both within and outside the state.

• passed a resolution amending the city's animal control regulations, primarily adopting detailed regulations directly from state law governing care for animals. A person convicted of a violation could be prohibited from keeping animals in the city for up to five years.

• passed a resolution regarding a Tree Planting Policy with the condition that tree planting in the Armory Park will only be done with approval of the Armory Commander.

• passed a resolution to request the Board of County Commissioners and federal legislators to request Payment In Lieu of Taxes from the government in compensation for federal land within the city.

• passed a resolution to seek an adjustment of water and sewer rates to address inequities in the charges.

• passed a resolution requesting that the County provide a list of county tax levies that are applied to city residents providing documentation justifying the taxes and showing how the tax rate is calculated. Councilor Scott said that there seems to be a number of levies on city residents for which no services are provided.

"We may not be able to protest these taxes but we can ask how these taxes are calculated," said Scott.

• passed a resolution basically adopting state law concerning lines of authority within city government. Of particular note was that the council does have the power and duty to prescribe the duties of all city employees. Councilor Steele cast the lone dissenting vote, saying that it was redundant.

• passed a resolution to request that a joint City/County planning board be established that would extend the city's planning jurisdiction five miles beyond the city limits.

• defeated in a split vote a motion to require a citizen vote for any major land annexations, with Scott, Harbaugh, and Sutherland voting for approval and LaSalle, Hendrickson and Steele voting against.

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