Economic development and community involvement in Hill County government were the themes of Tuesday evening's forum held at the Hill County Electric Hospitality Room.
Democrats Mike Anderson, an incumbent, and James Catt Jr. Spoke about their experience and ties to the community while answering questions about issues facing them if elected to a six-year term on the Hill County Commission. Democrat Bert Corcoran did not attend the forum because of a previous commitment out of state.
"I think the future of Hill County looks very good," Anderson said, touting his experience as a public servant from serving as a commissioner for six years and as a firefighter for 23 years.
"My platform is to reconnect with all the people, all the towns and cities in Hill County, by interacting, communicating with and informing," said Catt, a Havre native who worked for Burlington Northern Santa Fe for 20-plus years.
He spoke about connecting resources to the many needs in the community, even though resources are limited.
The budget faces a $200,000 decrease due to the cities annexation of large tax payers on its borders, Anderson said.
"We'll cut back where we can," he said, adding that the county has asked department heads to submit their budgets with a 5 percent cut.
Even so, the county has been fiscally responsible, he said.
"We're actually sitting fairly well, considering the downturn in the economy," he said.
"We are on a financially responsible track," he said.
Pulling out of the economic slump is the county's biggest challenge, he said.
Unemployment rates in the county are lower than state and national averages, he said.
"But we're still depressed," he said.
"And we will address that by creating jobs and inviting industry here to work with us in the bio-energy field and working with the chancellor at MSU-Northern. We will bring these companies to the Hi-Line," he said.
County employees might not receive a raise, Anderson said, but the insurance plan won't change.
The county should provide its employees with a safe work place and the training to successfully complete tasks, he said.
"And hopefully the morale to do those jobs well," he added.
"I'll be honest with you, I don't know where you're going to get more money," Catt said about the county budget.
The budget will be the greatest challenge for the county for the next three years, he said, and things like the loss of taxpayers due to annexation and the decrease in gas and oil revenues will present a struggle.
"And the answer to that is: develop new businesses, work with Bear Paw Development, make some positive things happen there," he said.
"I'm just trying to throw out ideas, and I'm looking for some reaction back," he said.
After reviewing the budget, Catt said, he thinks the county is in good financial shape.
"The budget is absolutely in the black," he said.
Employees are underpaid, he said. If raises can't be given, the working environment should be the best it possibly can be, he added.
"The first thing I'll do is figure out what their jobs are," he said. "And then we'll look at what we can do to make your job better."
To spur economic growth, Catt said that the county should work with different entities, such as a new bean plant in Hingham and Rocky Boy's Indian Reservat ion. The county is limited in what money, if any, it can spend on Rocky Boy, "but we can work with them," he said, giving the example of a multi-sports complex.
"I think we need to work with those people," he said.
The county already has several projects under way, Anderson said, including the development of an industrial park that would ideally house a biodiesel plant. Partnerships at Montana State University- Northern and with Northcentral Montana Transit system, tie in with that development, he said.
Opportunity Link Inc. took the lead on management of the transit system, which allows people to get to jobs, education and medical care, he said.
Eventually, he said he would like to see the system become an area bus authority administered by a board of directors.
Working with Rocky Boy could help increase grant funding for projects, such as road and bridge repairs, Catt said, and could also help with development.
He said he has attended several Business Committee meetings at the reservation and has spoken with officials about their feelings.
"Rocky Boy doesn't feel like they're well represented," he said, adding that he thinks that would be the feeling no matter who sits on the Hill County Commission.
Rocky Boy residents do want to feel like they're being listened to, he said.
"They're definitely not forgotten, in my eyes," he said. "They just want us to work with them, and I hear the same thing from the towns along the Hi-Line.
They feel they are forgotten."
"Rocky Boy is obviously not a forgotten part of Hill County," Anderson said.
The county already works with Rocky Boy officials on road and bridge projects, he said.
Also, there are agreements for things such as snow removal, he added, and during recent flooding the two governments were in contact daily about area dams' conditions.
Any relationship could be better, he said, but the relationship with Rocky Boy is already good.
"There's just certain things we can't do because they are a sovereign nation," he said.
How best to handle medical marijuana in the county was another topic raised during the forum.
"I think we need to decide what the majority of the counties want," Catt said, adding that Hill County should work with the Montana Association of Counties to decide.
Personally, Catt said he wants to see medical marijuana grown in a controlled facility and dispensed through pharmacies.
"Honestly, there's not a whole lot that the county can do," Anderson said.
He also said that he feels there are valid uses for the herb, but that like any other drug, there are instances of misuse.
The county is working with MACO, as well as Havre, on the issue, he said.
"So we're going to do what we can, but we have to realize we may not be able to do much," he added.
How to fund the Tri-Agency Safe Trails Drug Task Force if state and federal funding decreases was another question raised.
"Maybe that's part of the fine," Catt said. "I mean, what other choice do you have?"
He added that going to the tax payers and asking them to approve an increase in taxes to help fund that task force might be another option.
Most of the task force funding comes from the federal level, Anderson said.
"In 2008 we had a horrible swing," and lost 72 percent of funding, he said.
What the state's task forces, including the regional one here, are doing now is trying to wean themselves off of the federal funding.
In closing, Catt said he will immerse himself in the commission if elected.
"I'll bring a business philosophy to the board," he said.
Anderson said his experience sets him apart from his opponents.