By Rhonda Petersen
Two graduates from the Havre High School class of 1979 are candidates for Hill County commissioner.
Democratic incumbent Doug Kaercher faces Republican challenger Byron Welter on the ballot for the chance to serve a six-year term as Hill County commissioner for District One.
Kaercher, 41, was born and raised in Hill County. He married his wife, Darla, in 1986. Kaercher and his wife, a third-grade teacher at Lincoln-McKinley School, are raising three daughters, Katie, Mary and Anna.
Kaercher attended Helena Vo-Tech where he studied aviation maintenance. In 1984, he founded Topflight Inc., an aviation maintenance company based at the Havre-Hill County Airport. Kaercher ran the company until 1991, when he left the business to help take care of the family farm.
Kaercher is a qualified commercial multiengine instrument pilot, although he admits his duties as county commissioner leave him little time to fly.
Prior to being elected to his first term as a Hill County commissioner in 1996, Kaercher served on the Havre City Council from 1988 to 1993. Kaercher also served a two-year term on the Hill County Government Study Commission, from 1994 to 1996.
Kaercher said he is running for re-election because he likes his job. The biggest reward is being able to work on the local level to make positive changes that help people, he said.
One of the biggest accomplishments during his first term was helping to supervise the upgrade of the county's computers, Kaercher said. When he started his term, the county had only a handful of computers. Now the county boasts 50-plus networked computers. Kaercher said the upgrade was successful because not only did the county upgrade its technology, it also made sure that county employees received the necessary training to best take advantage of the new machines.
Kaercher enjoys the complexity of his job. With so many different responsibilities required to ensure the smooth operation of county government, he said, he looks forward to going to work each day to see what new challenges await.
If he's re-elected to a second term, Kaercher's job won't get any easier. Hill County will likely have to deal with the consequences of an estimated $250 million to $300 million state budget shortfall.
"It is still way too early to see if the county will need to raise taxes to offset losses in state revenue," he said.
Kaercher said the commissioners have so far done a good job maintaining services during a time of shrinking budgets.
If re-elected, Kaercher would seek to promote "economic diversity," he said. One of the ways the county could accomplish that goal is the completion of a proposed multipurpose facility, which could host large sport and other events. Kaercher believes the entire region should be involved in its development, not just Havre and Hill County. A regional multipurpose facility would bring badly needed people and dollars to the Hi-Line, he said.
Kaercher's opponent, Byron Welter, also supports the development of a multipurpose facility. Welter, however, believes the the facility should be developed by Havre and Hill County to maximize the economic benefits to the local community. Welter said the multipurpose facility is a "very doable project" but that the project must not be funded solely by taxpayers. Welter said various sources of funding should be sought and that support from the community must be there.
Welter, 41, also was born and raised in Hill County. He and his wife, Shelley, have two daughters, Skylar and Savannah.
Welter began his career as a small businessman while attending Northern Montana College by selling insurance for Northwestern Mutual Life. In 1981, Welter obtained a real estate sales license and spent the next eight years involved in a career in real estate, including owning a Century 21 franchise from 1984 to 1986. In 1986, Welter moved to Phoenix but returned home in two years.
In 1990, Welter started Spray-Rite Lawn & Tree Care with his father, James. In 1991, Welter purchased a vending company, which he still runs today. In 1994, Welter and his father sold Spray-Rite to Jim Burrington, who renamed the business New Concept Lawn Service. From 1993 to June 2000, Welter owned and operated the Park Hotel and Iron Horse Restaurant. He opened the JCPenney Catalog Store in 1998.
Welter said he decided to run for Hill County commissioner because he thinks the County Commission needs political balance. All three commissioners Kathy Bessette, Pat Conway and Kaercher are Democrats.
"The biggest thing is, I believe in the two-party system and right now that two-party system isn't working in Hill County. We need to bring the best of both parties together and share their ideas."
Welter said the experience he has gained from 23 years in small business gives him the qualifications to be a successful county commissioner. Welter said he knows how to work with people to find out what their needs are and find the best solutions.
He said he has more private enterprise experience than his opponent.
"I've created jobs and know what it's like to meet a payroll," he said.
If elected, Welter said he plans to devote himself "full-time, 100 percent to being a commissioner."
Welter identified several areas the county needs to address. The first is making county departments work more efficiently. The second is keeping taxes low. He said he would work with local elected representatives to educate them on how their actions will influence county government.
Welter's third area is restructuring policies. One example is following through on audits to ensure that the resources of the county aren't wasted.
Welter's goal as Hill County commissioner would be to see the "county running as efficiently and fairly as possible." He said he would also devote time to improving the area's economy. Welter identified developing value-added products from local resources as one way to improve the economy. One very simple example of a value-added product is the development of bread from wheat, he said.
The winner of the election will earn an annual salary of $34,423.68.