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Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Page One News at a Glance

Largest subdivision in the county’s history approved

Keeton appointed Treasurer

West House opens its doors

Chuckwagon challenge in the Bitterroot

Thornbrugh gets hospital Leadership Award

Stevi suffers power outage

Largest subdivision in the county’s history approved

By Michael Howell

The Ravalli County Commissioners unanimously approved the largest subdivision in the county’s history last week. A few years ago a proposed subdivision of this size would have drawn a standing room only crowd. Last Thursday, however, most of the chairs in the meeting room were empty as only a few members of the public and a few neighbors attended the review of the Grantsdale Addition Major Subdivision.

The subdivision, proposed by Kearns Properties LLC, would create 181 lots on 67.85 acres located to the east and north of the crook in the Skalkaho Highway where, after branching to the south from Highway 93, it turns east to go over the pass.

All the lots are proposed for single family residential use. Approximately 15 acres are proposed to be set aside as parkland and common areas. The applicant has reached an agreement with the Ravalli County Park Board to donate an approximately 9-acre parcel to the County which will be developed as a public park.

All lots will be served by an on-site community wastewater treatment system and an on-site community water supply system. There are no variance requests accompanying the proposal.

The project is proposed to be filed in six separate phases over the course of 20 years with each phase taking two to five years to complete.

In the course of discussing the state’s criteria for assessing the potential negative impacts of the development on the public, Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher expressed the belief that it was not clear in state law that loss of agricultural land was a legitimate criteria since the owner of the land was the only one losing the agricultural use of the land and he was deciding to give it up. Kanenwisher called property use an aspect of ownership and the property owner is the only one giving up that use because he has decided that subdividing is a better use. He said that the criteria might be constitutionally off base.

Nathan Lucke of Territorial Landworks, consultant for the developer, said that the developer aims to have a portion of the property rest in ownership of the utility company and be leased for agricultural use such as vegetable gardens or other crops.

Mitigating negative effects of the subdivision on the school district and to public health and safety were slightly contentious.

The developer offered no mitigation for effects of increased student enrollment other than developing a school bus turnaround. County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ernie Jean has provided the county with a tabulation of the costs of educating students, minus the capital costs involved, and the Hamilton School district has an estimated cost per student of $2,885 per student per year. Since the last census estimated that there were approximately .5 students per household in the valley, to offset the annual public expense of educating the new students produced by the subdivision prior to collection and distribution of the taxes on the development, the county has tried to collect mitigation fees of about half that cost or about $1,442 per lot. It has been successful in collecting close to that in a few recent cases. But in this case, after a discussion of the complex aspects of tax collection and lot development, the commissioners agreed that no mitigation money was required.

The question of mitigating effects on public health and safety also drew some opposition from the developer, but in the end Kearns agreed to pay $100 per lot to mitigate effects on the Sheriff’s office and emergency services.

Neighbors to the subdivision complained about the potential negative effects on a herd of elk in the area that use the property for grazing. They also pointed to the high number of animals including elk that are killed crossing the Skalkaho Highway, which borders the subdivision on two sides.

The commissioners noted that planning board member Skip Kowalski, who has a background in wildlife biology, suggested that the area proposed for development is already surrounded by other developments and thus represents an attractive grazing ground for the elk. He said that by developing the area the elk might be encouraged to graze elsewhere, reducing the hazard related to the bordering highway. They also noted that speed limits on the highway are determined by the Montana Department of Transportation and that scheduled transportation analyses at different points in the phased development will address problems of subdivision traffic entering the highway and perhaps the speed limits on the highway in the area, mitigating the neighbors’ concerns.

The subdivision has been in the works for a long time. It was one of the subdivisions involved in the Lords lawsuit settlement agreement back in 2006. Although it may not be the best time to market subdivision lots, developer Kent Kearns said that after all this time he just wanted to get the subdivision approved and hopes that the economy soon turns around enough to support some phased development.

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Keeton appointed Treasurer

By Michael Howell

Former Chief Deputy Treasurer Marie Keeton was appointed by the Ravalli County Commissioners last week to replace outgoing treasurer Mary Hudson-Smith. Hudson-Smith, under fire for failure to perform her duties since taking office in January, submitted her resignation effective February 28, and turned over her duties to Keeton pending appointment of a new treasurer.

The commissioners received a total of 10 applications for the job and narrowed the field to three candidates that were scheduled for public interviews, adding a fourth at the last minute. The applicants that were interviewed included Keeton, former Ravalli County Treasurer JoAnne Johnson, retired attorney from Missoula Max Boese and Victor resident Valerie Stamey who currently works as Supervisor of Food and Nutrition Services for Missoula County Public Schools.

The candidate’s job applications and the interviews were open to the public. In the interviews candidates were all asked the same set of questions. The commissioners convened to make a decision on the appointment immediately following the last interview on Thursday, March 3.

Following the suggestion of Human Resources Director Robert Jenni, each commissioner picked their two candidates out of the four interviewed. Every commissioner included Keeton as one of their choices, three included Johnson and two included Stamey, narrowing the decision to a choice between Keeton and Johnson.

The county received 71 written comments in support of Johnson, including a recommendation from Chief Deputy Treasurer Keeton herself in her job application. Seven out of eight of the members of the public who commented at the public meeting also supported Johnson.

But Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher was not swayed by the public support, saying, “This is not a vote.”

He noted that he had a few issues with selecting Johnson. He criticized her for not cross training employees sufficiently to cover the treasurer’s duties in her absence, in effect leaving the newly elected Treasurer Hudson-Smith in the lurch. He said she failed to put sufficient policies and procedures in place to facilitate a smooth transition in the office. He also criticized her for some comments to the press that she made following her loss in the last election.

Kanenwisher also noted that Keeton had managed to handle the position well during the two weeks that she has been in charge of the office. He said that she also presented concrete ideas in the interview process as to how she would address the issues that have plagued the department.

Commissioner Suzy Foss said that she had campaigned for Johnson in the last election and had a lot of respect for her abilities, but also criticized her for not putting necessary policies and procedures concerning her supervisory role in writing. She also praised Keeton’s performance in the interview process, saying that Keeton “brought a life to her interview” and addressed the issue of cross training which Foss thought Johnson did not adequately address.

Commissioner Ron Stoltz agreed and added, “In the interviews Marie stood out for me because she talked about how the public was who she served.”

Commissioners J.R. Iman and Greg Chilcott expressed support for Johnson.

Iman stated that the county really needed a quick fix and that Johnson had a demonstrated ability to do the job with 20 years working in the office and the last eight as Treasurer. He said the office ran smoothly without any major complaints. He disagreed that cross training had not taken place in the office, saying that Keeton’s performance on the job over the last two weeks was good evidence that some cross training had been accomplished.

Chilcott agreed, saying, “JoAnne stands out amongst the applicants.” He also said, “The most important recommendation for JoAnne came from Marie Keeton herself.” He noted that Johnson had survived eight audits, that she was easy to work with and was the first department head to address the county’s serious budget problems by trimming her own budget request to the commissioners.

Chilcott made a motion to appoint Johnson, but that motion was defeated on a vote of 3 to 2 with Iman voting along with Chilcott in the motion. A subsequent motion was made to appoint Keeton and that motion passed on a 4 to 1 vote with Iman casting the lone dissenting vote.

Keeton was raised in the mid-west and went to Kansas State University. She moved to the Bitterroot Valley in 1996 and became a deputy clerk in the treasurer’s office in 1997. She served as supervisor over the Motor Vehicle Department for a number of years. She has been Chief Deputy in the treasurer’s office since 2003.

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West House opens its doors

By Michael Howell

All the County Commissioners were present for the open house celebration at West House last week. West House is a brand new facility located on ground owned by Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital. It was built to facilitate handling of people who are not suffering from any physical injury and may not have created a crime but are in need of confinement until their mental health can be evaluated. But it will serve a broad spectrum of people including those who desire voluntary commitment for reasons of their own. The new facility will be staffed and run by the Western Montana Mental Health Center.

Commission Chairman J.R. Iman told the gathering that the current commission was glad to see the facility opening, but that the credit for it belonged largely to former Commissioner Kathleen Driscoll. She worked hard, not only to convince the County Commission as a whole about the need and the feasibility of the undertaking, but to help coordinate the effort to meet those needs.

Driscoll expressed thanks for the recognition and told the gathering how she had been personally motivated by events in her own life. About 16 and a half years ago, she said, her son led her to a life devoted to help with mental illness. She said that she saw one son taken away in an ambulance after being hit by a car while riding his bicycle. He survived, but with serious physical and mental injuries. She saw another son led away in shackles by the police. He was subsequently diagnosed with schizophrenia. All this shaped her personal commitment to caring for the mentally ill and handicapped. Driscoll noted that currently it costs the county about $29,000 per month to keep a person in Warm Springs, the state mental institution.

Ron Stoker, former Ravalli County Representative from House District 87, was also introduced as a key player in making the facility a reality. Stoker sponsored House Bills 130, 131 and 132 which were crucial in obtaining funding for development of mental health facilities throughout the state, including here in Ravalli County. Stoker said that he attended 24 meetings in his eventually successful efforts to secure funding support from the legislature and he continues to work for more funds to maintain the services.

“I have a strong belief,” he said, “that the current legislature will continue this funding.”

Another central figure in securing funding for this specific facility was Ravalli County Deputy Attorney Karen Mahar who did an immense amount of research and documentation into the county’s needs and expenses in relation to the issue and also helped organize a local advisory group. Her efforts were crucial in obtaining funding. The $420,000 cost of construction of the facility was eventually funded through a grant from the Montana Mental Health Settlement Trust for $425,000 which Mahar helped facilitate. The extra $5,000 will go towards purchasing a back up generator for the facility. The Yockey family, who suffered the loss of a son to mental illness, is also donating $2,264 in memory of their son. The Rapp Family Foundation also donated an additional $3,000 to meet the total cost of the back up generator.

Also crucial to the creation of the crisis facility was a $310,594 grant from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. Crucial to the award and implementation of those funds were Lou Thompson of the Addictive and Mental Disorders Division; Glenda Oldenberg, Mental Health Services Bureau Chief; and Behavioral Health Program Facilitator Deb Matteucci.

Iman thanked Jim Olsen of HIP, Inc. and Darlene Golas for preparing the original plans for the facility. He thanked Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital for providing the land. And he thanked Western Montana Mental Health for stepping up to operate the facility.

John Lynn of MMHC said, “Two years ago I would not have imagined that this would be possible.” He thanked all those involved in making it a reality. Lindsey Olsen Beuhler will serve as the group home director at the facility. They have also hired a new office director from Bozeman, Katherine Isaacson. Irene Walters APRN, will make daily rounds at the facility and has prescriptive authority for both children and adults.

Hamilton Mayor Jerry Steele helped secure waiver of impact fees for the construction from the Hamilton City Council. Hamilton Police Chief Ryan Oster also provided law enforcement coordination and support. Hamilton City Attorney Ken Bell provided document review and legal coordination for the effort.

Other key players in making the facility a reality were MDMH Assistant Administrator Troy Hanson, Skip Rosenthal of the Western Montana Addiction Services and consumer members Jenny Monson and Sarah Brigham.

The new West House facility has two secure rooms on the north side of the building to house crisis patients. There are also three rooms on the south side of the facility to serve voluntary patients.

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Chuckwagon challenge in the Bitterroot

With the help and inspiration of valley resident Ned Larson, Stevensville will be hosting the 1st Annual Chuckwagon Cookoff Challenge this June as part of the Western Heritage Days festival.

Ned and wife Terri moved to the valley six years ago from Nuevo, CA so he could enjoy the beauty and lifestyle of the Bitterroots and they never looked back

Well - almost never.

Ned missed the fun and the folklore of helping his friend on his friend’s chuckwagon. They did some catering and local community events for schools in order to teach the youngsters about some of the rich heritage of the chuckwagons and cattle trail drives, but mainly they enjoyed traveling with their chuckwagon to some of the many Chuckwagon Cookoffs held in nearby western states. With their chuckwagon trailered behind them they traveled to Texas, New Mexico and Arizona, competing with as many as 30 other chuckwagons at a time and winning more than their share of prizes - both for food quality and chuckwagon authenticity.

When Ned and Terri moved to Stevensville they participated in a local Dutch oven cooking group in order to keep their "spoon in the pot," but it just wasn't the same.

Four years ago Ned decided he had to have his own chuckwagon so he joined the American Chuckwagon Association and over the next couple of years began assembling the wagons, wheels, hardware, Dutch ovens and everything else necessary to have an authentic looking and functional chuckwagon.

You may have seen his wagon in parades pulled by a friend’s team of Haflinger horses but he has also been hauling the wagon down to Cheyenne, WY the last two years for their prestigious Chuckwagon Cookoff. During that time he has come home with three first prizes and three second prizes, but mostly he enjoyed being "back behind the box" and participating with the other chuckwagons in the traditional events.

"Montana has a heritage and history with chuckwagons," says Ned. His favorite movie, "Lonesome Dove," was based on the Charlie Goodnight trail drive from Texas to Montana in the days following the Civil War.

When asked why he wanted to organize a cookoff in the valley, he said, “Well, shoot, it’s a part of Montana’s cattle history, and today’s generation needs to see what it was like. And besides, we just like to cook behind a wagon with Dutch ovens and an open wood fire the way they used to."

The Stevensville Main Street Association agreed with him and is working with Ned to organize the 1st Annual Chuckwagon Challenge in conjunction with this year’s Western Heritage Days festival in June. 

Entry is available to anyone with an authentic wooden wheeled chuckwagon and the facilities and know-how to cook a five-course meal for judging as well as for the general public who may purchase a ticket for the meal.

They hope to have 6 or 8 wagons this year. Says Ned, "It’s a start. With interest and support from the community this could become a really big event that we're all proud of. Fun and educational for the whole family."

It seems like a natural.

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Thornbrugh gets hospital Leadership Award

Judy Thornbrugh, Materials Management Department Head at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital, was chosen by her fellow employees to receive the annual Leadership Award this year.

Tears began to flow as Thornbrugh accepted the award from MDMH CEO John Bartos.

“I do what I do because I love what I do,” said Thronbrugh. “I am very humbled that people feel this way.”

A lifelong resident of the valley, Thornbrugh was born at the hospital and has worked there for over 33 years. When she started working part time there were less than 100 employees at the hospital, now there are about 500. There was no marketing department, no MRI, no lasers for eye surgery.

“It’s been like an adventure,” said Thornbrugh. “As you grow, you learn. Because of what we do here, in the open and behind the scenes, there’s always a lot going on. Nothing stays the same.”

But despite the constant change and growth, Thornbrugh said the goals are always the same. That is, rendering the best care possible for the patients.

Right up there next to patient care, however, is taking care of fellow employees.

“My gratification comes from the team, the family, and how well we are working together,” she said.

CEO John Bartos said that he has known Judy and worked with her for 23 years.

“Within nine months I saw that Judy was a leader,” said Bartos. “She is more than just a department head, she is a leader, a mentor, a councilor, she cares,” he said. “I don’t know what I would do without Judy.”

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Stevi suffers power outage

In the wee hours of the morning on Wednesday, March 2, power was disrupted to the whole town of Stevensville. Vicki Judd, Manager of Community Relations for NorthWestern Energy, said that she received the first call about the outage around 5:45 a.m. She said that a regulator went out at the Stevensville sub-station and caused a fire to start which disabled the transformer at the sub-station. It took most of the day to resolve the problem and get power back on to the whole town.

A temporary sub-station was created at the Town of Stevensville’s sewer plant and by mid-day power had been re-routed from the Victor sub-station and power was restored to a few places such as the Fire Hall and Town Hall to provide an emergency gathering place for residents left without heat in their homes. However, the big fix had to wait for a transformer to be delivered from Butte. That transformer arrived in the late afternoon and a temporary sub-station was established on town property near the sewer plant so that power was restored to the whole town by that evening.

Stevensville Utility Clerk Denise Philley said that the response by town officials, employees, police and volunteer firemen was immediate. Town Councilor Desera Towle quickly took her own initiative and went door to door in her district to inform residents about what had happened and see if anyone needed help. Off-duty policeman Mike Sunderland also sprang into action along with other town officials and volunteer firemen to canvas the whole town in search of anyone who might be homebound without heat or food and help remedy their plight. Business owners in town also stepped up to help. The local hardware store and Cenex provided flashlights and batteries for instance. Super 1 Foods and Frontier Café supplied food and drinks and the Senior Center opened its doors for anyone needing a heated place to stay.

“I am so proud of our town’s employees and other volunteers who responded so quickly to the situation,” said Philley. She said that there was a lot of concern especially for the elderly and the disabled who might suffer more than an inconvenience. She said that people, especially the elderly, really appreciated the contact.

“They just needed calming and it was reassuring to know that someone was aware of their situation and looking out for them,” said Philley.

Judd said that the temporary sub-station will adequately serve the area until a more permanent solution can be found.

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