Written by John Plestina
Debris from two burned mobile homes on the south side remain long after fires displaced the last people living at the sites.
(Photos by John Plestina)
City officials are telling some Wolf Point property owners to remove trash and junk vehicles from yards and cut down weeds or the work could be done without permission from owners and assessments charged.
City clerk/treasurer Marlene Mahlum said weeds and other vegetation exceeding eight inches, untrimmed hedges, unlicensed vehicles, trash and debris from burned structures violate a municipal nuisance ordinance.
Property owners are legally responsible for weeds and trash to the street in front of their properties and one-half of alleys behind properties.
The problem exists in every part of town.
Mahlum said the Wolf Point Police Department and public works department could enforce the nuisance ordinance.
She cited public health, safety and fire hazards.
“I can send them a notice. I can give them seven days to mow it,” Mahlum said.
She said the city can have grass and weeds mowed, yards cleaned up and charge assessments.
“We have sent letters out. I don’t know how many of them responded,” Mahlum said.
“Some of them cut the weeds and left them [in yards and alleys],” she said, and added that cut vegetation must be removed.
Mahlum said owners of several properties with debris remaining from fires that destroyed houses and mobile homes, and owners of vacant and neglected properties are subject to the nuisance ordinance. Some structures that have been destroyed by fire have remained on lots for several years.
Written by John Plestina
Several members of the Wolf Point Police Department, Roosevelt County Sheriff’s Office and Montana Highway Patrol attended a Montana Department of Revenue alcohol law enforcement training in Wolf Point Wednesday, Aug. 26.
The DOR is educating law enforcement officers and the public across the state about enforcement of existing liquor laws and the need to change a deeply ingrained Montana drinking culture that is stubbornly resistant to change.
Montana ranks first in the nation for alcohol-related deaths per 100,000 people, highest in the nation for fatalities per 100 million miles traveled and third at almost 40 percent of fatalities related to alcohol.
Lisa Scates, a Helena-based Montana DOR alcohol education coordinator, told local law enforcement officials and officers that the drinking culture in Montana is very strong.
“We’re fighting a tough battle,” she said.
Scates said 65 percent of crime nationwide begins or ends at a bar or liquor store.
Wolf Point police chief Jeff Harada said that percentage is low for Wolf Point.
Scates said alcohol-caused crimes include assaults, domestic violence and sexual assaults.
According to Montana Department of Corrections statistics, 90 percent of inmates had alcohol or drugs or both related to the crimes of which they were convicted.
Scates said the percentage of crimes that are related to both alcohol and marijuana are increasing.
She said powdered alcohol and alcohol-filled chocolates are not illegal in Montana. She compared powdered alcohol to Kool-Aid packets that become beverages when water is added.
“How easy that is to entice kids to try that,” she said.
Scates said the DOR denied a cereal-flavored vodka called Loopy with a Fruit Loops-style design on the bottle.
“It’s perfectly legal for a bar to make Jell-O shots and sell them,” she said and added that it is not legal to sell in stores. Scates also cited alcohol-filled chocolates, which are illegal in Montana.
“There’s bacon-flavored vodka. There’s salmon-flavored vodka,” she said.
Scates cited Washington state, which deregulated alcohol sales four years ago with a voter approved liquor privatization initiative.
The availability of alcohol increased with the number of retailers increasing from 338 state stores to more than 1,700 private stores.
Large retailers lobbied voters to approve the initiative.
“Costco spent about $33 million,” Scates said.
“They’re now dealing with the consequences [in Washington],” she said.
“The cost of alcohol has gone through the roof. Their grab and runs [shoplifting of alcohol] has gone up,” Scates said.
She said “border stores,” which are liquor stores in Oregon just across the state line from Washington, have benefited.
“Washington is really suffering for that now,” Scates said. “It’s a benefit that we are a control state.”
Montana is one of 18 control states, which means the DOR controls all liquor sold in the state. Other control states include neighbors Idaho and Wyoming.
The vendor owns the liquor and must send it to a state warehouse in Helena. The DOR acts as a middleman before it is distributed to retailers.
Thirty-eight states are licensing states, which license establishments and the state is not in the wholesale business.
Scates said there would be more consumption if Montana were a license state.
Liquor distribution in Montana is a three-tiered system. The tiers are breweries and wineries, wholesalers and retailers. Licensed businesses cannot be more than one. Breweries are not on the retail tier.
Montana is one of only 17 states that use a system of quota areas for liquor licensing. Quotas for the number of liquor licenses include the area that is within city limits, within a five-mile radius of the city limits and within the county.
“It’s a way for us [DOR] to control how many licenses there are out there,” Scates said.
Agency stores in Montana are privately owned liquor stores under contract with the state. Agency stores are not bars.
“They cannot consume on the premises,” Scates said.
That is what is called “self pour,” which is not allowed in Montana.
Over service and sales to minors are lingering problem across Montana that have been reported to be prevalent in Wolf Point.
It is unlawful in Montana sell or serve alcohol to a person who is actually, apparently obviously intoxicated.
Scates said the DOR wants to fix the problems.
“We don’t want to put them [bars and convenience stores] out of business. They’re Montana businesses,” Scates said.
She said bartenders and retail sales people should cut off people who are not obviously intoxicated if it is apparent that they are attempting to purchase alcohol for an intoxicated individual.
The DOR issues licenses and is the only entity that can take them away, but there is action local law enforcement can take.
“If law enforcement deems a bar a public nuisance, they can shut them down,” Scates said.
A city can revoke a business license, she said.
“The Montana Department of Revenue functions with a four-strike policy. Four strikes in three years, you’re out,” Scates said.
She explained that any liquor law violation against a bartender, server or retail employee counts against the liquor license. As far as individual employees that are cited for violations, some judges are stricter than others.
Scates recommended that law enforcement send copies of citations for violations that include over service and serving minors against establishments, managers and owners to the DOR. She said even if there are no formal charges or cases are dismissed, the DOR could investigate for state liquor law violations. Also, law enforcement should forward DUI reports that include where the person charged purchased package alcohol or ordered bar drinks.
Montana is among the most lenient of states with some of the lowest dollar amounts of fines.
The fines for violations that include over service and serving minors are: first offense, $250 fine; second offense, $1,000 fine; third offense, $1,500 fine; and fourth offense, revocation of the liquor license.
“It is very difficult to change liquor laws in Montana without the support of the [alcohol] industry,” Scates said.
Scates cited a landmark case with consequences where a bartender became the first in Montana to go to jail for over service after an intoxicated patron caused a fatal crash.
Bartender Nathan Hale, 28, of Bigfork was employed in a bar in a bowling alley in a rural area near Flathead Lake in 2009. Scates called the location of the establishment “in the middle of nowhere,” with a substantial amount of driving required for patrons leaving the bar.
Hale was convicted of negligent endangerment, selling alcohol after hours and selling alcohol to an intoxicated customer, all misdemeanors, and served six months in jail.
“It was the first time that anyone was held accountable for that in Montana,” Scates said.
Hale was reported to have served 13 drinks in two and a half hours to off-duty coworker Travis Vandersloot, 29, of Columbia Falls. After leaving the bowling alley, Vandersloot crashed head-on into a Montana Highway Patrol cruiser while traveling at about 80 mph in the wrong lane on U.S. Hwy, 93. MHP trooper Michael Haynes and Vandersloot both died in the crashed. Police found a glass pipe for smoking marijuana in Vandersloot’s car and determined that his blood alcohol level was 0.18.
Scates said that crash and another DUI caused crash in 2008 that also claimed the life of an MHP trooper resulted in then MHP colonel and now Montana Department of Transportation director Mike Tooley, who is formerly of Wolf Point, telling the Montana Legislature they failed the families of the two MHP troopers, who were the only fatalities in the line of duty in about 50 years. Tooley lobbied for and got stricter DUI laws.
Scates said she has had calls from owners of bars and stores that sell alcoholic beverages, bartenders and other employees that sell or serve alcohol that are upset because they cannot serve intoxicated people. She said some people told her they don’t think they should be responsible for others.
“If you think about it, over service is a big problem in Montana,” Scates said.
She said some other states license servers as well as establishments, holding bartenders and table servers to a higher level of accountability than they are in Montana.
Scates said if Montana licensed servers, a fired bartender or server would have a license to work in jeopardy and a difficult time finding another job.
Montana does require sales and service training within two months of being hired. Several certification classes have been held in Wolf Point and Culbertson.
A few other points that Scates presented included that a city can be more restrictive than state law, but not less.
She said there is no state law that says a person younger than 21 cannot be inside a bar. Some states prohibit any person under 21 from being in any bar, even with a parent.
Scates said bars could set “house policies,” which are limits on minors being inside establishments, as long as the policies do not violate civil rights.
Minors at 18 are permitted to work in bars and to serve open containers of alcohol. There is no legal minimum age to sell, stock or carry out for customers closed containers of alcohol.
Licenses are not needed for private events that include weddings and office parties where alcohol is served. An exception would be for catering businesses.
Anyone having a private event or party could be liable if someone becomes intoxicated and hurts him or her self or someone else.
Written by John Plestina
Pictured in order areteachers Amber Clark, Ashley Fulbright, Russell Johnson and principal Greg Gourneau.
Frontier Elementary School is welcoming a new principal and three teachers this school year.
Former Poplar Middle School social studies teacher Greg Gourneau has joined the Frontier staff as principal.
He taught at PMS for four years and was previously a teacher at Brockton School.
Gourneau grew up in Poplar, graduated from Poplar High School and currently lives in Poplar.
“My plan is to continue the academic tradition they have here at Frontier and making sure students have the skills to move up to the next level,” Gourneau said.
Amber Clark is the only one of the three new teachers at Frontier who grew up in Wolf Point.
The kindergarten teacher is the daughter of former Frontier teacher Ann Wienke.
Clark went to Southside and Northside elementary schools, and Wolf Point High School. She went to college in Bismarck, N.D., Missoula and Bozeman.
Ashley Fulbright is a little more than three months out of Montana State University and beginning her first teaching job at Frontier.
She is teaching fourth grade.
Fulbright was born and raised in Bozeman.
“One of my biggest goals is that I have a very engaging class,” Fulbright said.
Russell Johnson is also new to Frontier Elementary School. Beginning his second teaching job, he is the K-8 music teacher.
Johnson, a University of Montana graduate, previously taught two years in Glasgow.
He is from Missoula.
“I’m happy to be here,” Johnson said.
Written by John Plestina
The Wolf Point City Council adopted the fiscal year 2015-2016 budget as presented with doubled assessments during a special meeting Monday, Aug. 31.
The mill levy was set at 218.02, amounting to $352,534.
With grant and reserve funding not available to make needed repairs to several streets, the street and street maintenance assessments will increase 100 percent to fund street construction projects. Street maintenance will jump from $39.60 to $79.20 and the street fund will increase by $77.28 to $154.56. The total increase for the two assessments will be $116.99.
The Montana Department of Revenue conducted a new tax evaluation statewide during fall 2014. It resulted in Roose-velt County real estate values increasing substantially, but more so in Culbertson and Bainville, which are Bakken Oilfield-
impacted. In Wolf Point, taxes doubled for some homeowners, increased only slightly for others and remained static for some.
Taxable values went up to $1,617,237 with the market value for Wolf Point real estate increasing from $41,314,358 in 2014 to $90,281,581 this year. The mill value increased by a little more than $300 to $1,617 per mill requiring the city to levy fewer mills this year.
There will be a decrease of 61.99 mills for levied funds, but an increase of $10,362 in tax dollars.
Wolf Point’s clerk/treasurer Marlene Mahlum said that while there could be a reduction in taxes for individual taxpayers, the assessment increases will drive the total each property owner in the city pays.
Other drivers for higher tax bills are Roosevelt County and the Wolf Point and Frontier school districts, all of which adopt their own budgets. Taxes for all taxing entities appear on tax bills that are mailed at the end of October. Voter approval in November 2014 authorized the county commissioners to issue and sell up to $11.86 million in general obligation bonds to be repaid within 20 years for a new county jail to replace the current outdated and under-sized jail that does not meet current state and national jail standards.
There are no increases for city water, sewer and garbage.
The city budget includes funding for an additional officer for the police department. Increases in the numbers of calls for police services have been cited. City officers responded to 27 percent more calls for service in June than they did for the same period last year. Police chief Jeff Harada said he would begin advertising for the position immediately.
The city is seeing a decrease in the oil, gas, coal and natural resources distribution from the state to county and municipal governments.
For the last quarter, a total of $67,555 went to various governmental entities in Roosevelt County with Wolf Point receiving $24,212.
Written by John Plestina
When municipal officials presented the fiscal year 2015-2016 budget and assessment increases during a public hearing before the Wolf Point City Council Wednesday, Aug. 26, one taxpayer told the council he was opposed to doubling the street assessments.
While city taxes might not go up, two assessments will double to fund street repairs and repaving with no grant funding available and inadequate reserve funding to pay for the projects.
Municipal officials defended the need to double assessments.
“We had to do something. We had to raise the rates,” mayor Chris Dschaak said. “The money that we have now is not sufficient to do anything.”
He said if the people of Wolf Point want their streets done and done professionally, professionals must be hired.
City resident Bill Juve said he disagreed with everything Dschaak said and suggested that the street department could do the work with equipment, materials and funds the city currently has available.
“What do we need a city workforce for if we’re going to hire everything done?” Juve asked.
Dschaak countered that the street maintenance department lacks enough qualified employees and that there has been difficulty finding new employees and retaining help.
“We’d have to hire a street paving crew,” Dschaak said. He added that the public works department also has responsibilities for minor street repairs, parks and the swimming pool.
Public Works director Rick Isle said employees have left for better jobs.
He also said employees had to cover for vacations during the summer and the department had two inexperienced summer workers this past summer.
Juve questioned what projects would be considered major projects.
Interstate Engineering of Nashua has prioritized proposed street projects and estimated costs.
Dschaak said major projects for the coming years would include repaving Front Street, Fairweather Street, Custer Street and Fifth Avenue North.
“We [the council, Isle and Interstate Engineering] have to collectively come up with a plan [for major street projects],” Dschaak said,
“I’d like to see this money [from an assessment increases] start working for us next summer,” he said.
“I wish I had a better idea how to lower taxes but I don’t,” Dschaak said.
Dschaak also said the street assessment rates should go up every year with inflation.