Monday, February 26, 2024

Commissioners must meet the needs of a growing county

| March 19, 2023 12:00 AM

The mission statement of the Board of County Commissioners is to “strive to provide responsive and accountable services to protect and enhance the Flathead community.” The commissioner’s webpage states the county is committed to:

  • Accountable stewardship of taxpayer resources.
  • Respectful and responsive communications.
  • Professional service with quality and integrity.
  • Proactive and innovative leadership at all levels.
  • Safety and security throughout the county.
  • A positive team culture that values all people .
  • Equal treatment for all.

Our county is growing and experiencing significant challenges because of this growth. It is the responsibility of our county government to manage the resources taxpayers provide to improve our quality of life. Nowhere in their mission statement or commitments does it indicate they are to stop or impede the growth of government services necessary to “protect and enhance the Flathead community.”

Recent actions – or inactions – clearly indicate our Board of Commissioners are unwilling to be accountable to their own standards.

March 14’s vote to not purchase the property on Wiley Dike Road brings our area’s septage issue to a critical level. The contract signed with Lakeside Water and Sewer District to accept effluent hinged on Flathead County closing on that specific property by June 1, 2023.

Our county allocated $15.4 million dollars of American Rescue Plan Act funding to address environmental quality and population growth issues around septage and water treatment for our valley.

From their website: “The Flathead County Septage Treatment Facility is a solution to preserve environmental quality and address population growth within our community. Flathead County has an estimated 30,000 wastewater treatment systems already in-place, with continued growth to occur in the upcoming years. The increasing number of septic systems, in addition to the dwindling amount of available land for current septage disposal methods, has created a potential problem that could negatively impact the environment and our groundwater resource in the valley. Therefore, it has led us to the need to create a regional solution to mitigate issues related to septage and biosolids for our community.”

In a 2 to 1 vote, the recent proposed property purchase went down, putting the contract with Lakeside in jeopardy. Commissioner Randy Brodehl stated that this issue and facility “is a private industry responsibility and private industry hasn’t planned for this. Just because the private industry didn’t plan for it doesn’t mean it is not their responsibility. Their lack of planning doesn’t mean the county should step up and grow government.”

Timing is critical as these $15.4 million federal dollars must be expended by Dec. 31, 2026. There is also $4.6 million of state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation dollars allocated to the project that must be expended by 2024.

Even if sewage and septage was a private industry responsibility, private industry cannot access these dollars. This is an urgent health and public safety issue for our community which should not be delayed. It will impact housing costs and waste costs, and erode the quality of life in our community. This is not just about public and community events and porta-potty waste and disposal. We desperately need to increase housing inventory, much of which will be in areas of unincorporated Flathead County. If not resolved soon, at some point, the Department of Environmental Quality and Health Department will have to shut down new septic system applications if there is no place to put septage. This shortsighted decision will cost us sooner rather than later.

Additionally, in the recent past, two more examples of a failure to execute on mission and commitments are evident:

  • Mental and behavioral health has reached a critical point in our county where access and services are all but non-existent for individuals without insurance. The county oversees and is responsible for distribution of those public dollars and is taking no steps we can identify to rectify this public health crisis in the Flathead.
  • C-PACE could be in place for our county’s businesses to improve energy efficiency, protect our pristine environment and grow jobs. C-Pace is a tool that has been advanced in the city of Kalispell and 10 other counties in the state of Montana.

Growth is here. More growth is inevitable. The county commissioners' job is to use the resources they are given to manage these needs. We strongly urge the commissioners to find a solution and move forward on the Flathead County Septage Treatment Facility expediently. It is time we ask them to deliver on the county’s own mission and commitments.

- Lorraine Clarno, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce president and CEO; Kevin Gartland, Whitefish Chamber of Commerce executive director; Tagen Vine, Kalispell Chamber of Commerce board chair; Jeff Raper, Whitefish Chamber of Commerce board chair.

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