The Importance Of Not Being Curious About Local Government

by William Skink

It’s important to not be too curious about the workings of local government. In order to maintain a cheery disposition toward our elected brain trust, don’t scratch at the surface of their actions because you may not like what you find.

For example, remember that little bridge providing access for illegal campers and drug abusers to the West Broadway Island? In February, 2019, it was reported that the Missoula Redevelopment Agency would spend half a million to build this little bridge to nowhere:

The agency has earmarked $500,000 in tax increment financing for the project.

Chris Behan, the agency’s assistant director, says work on the project might wrap up by the end of May.

When the bridge finally opened in October of last year (not May), the reported cost had ballooned $300,000:

A press release says the $800,000 project took shape when the city took ownership of the island in 2013, and it was funded by tax increment financing in Urban Renewal District II. Landowners Joe and Dorothy Hacker donated a portion of land for the project.

Somehow, between February of 2019 and October, the cost of this project shot up $300,000. Why? And why is it a blogger asking this question and not a curious reporter dedicated to informing the public about what is being done with their limited public resources?

Another story where curiosity could be problematic is Missoula’s Poplar plantation.

Seven years ago Missoula spent over a million dollars to expand its Poplar pilot program. The main purpose of the Poplars was to divert some treated wastewater from entering the Clark Fork, but we were told back then that the trees would grow, then be sold, making much of the money back:

The project will cost an estimated $1.375 million total, and the money will come out of sewer funds, said plant superintendent Starr Sullivan. The cost may seem high, he said, but it’s 10 to 20 times cheaper than installing more equipment to meet tightening environmental standards for the levels of compounds going into the river.

“I think in the future, we’re going to see stricter and stricter requirements,” Sullivan said.

If the project goes as planned, the harvest will take place in 2027, and will yield some $2 million, according to estimates from city officials.

Guess what? Because of market forces, this project is not going as planned. Instead of turning the trees into lumber, our braintrust is just going to compost them:

“Since the market changes, we can’t use it much for board – there’s not much of a call to use it for regular lumber and that,” said Bowman. “With the approximately 80,000 trees that are out there, in the future we’ll need that for the compost facility. We’re not going to go in there and cut everything down, because that would ruin the appearance.”

Bowman said current plans will remove 80 popular trees that are ready to topple. The cost of their removal will serve as a benchmark for a future harvesting plan.

“My goal is to look at the cost of taking 100 trees out, or 500 trees out, and do it strategically throughout the plan,” Bowman said. “We have to look at this not only for this year or next, but five years from now and 10 years.”

Isn’t this fantastic perception management? Isn’t our local media wonderful? Missoula went from having Poplars to sell as a product, to Poplars that need to be removed, which will be a “cost”. Are you curious how much cost? Don’t you know curiosity killed the cat?

In my poem yesterday I mentioned that butterflies in Missoula will be getting a nice, new home. Here is the reporting on Missoula County signing the agreement for this very important project to house needy insects in our fair community:

Under Tuesday’s agreement, the Butterfly House must raise funds for the cost of construction related to the Rocky Mountain Gardens and Exploration Center. A timeline hasn’t been set and no cost estimate was provided in the agreement.

Those behind the project believe it will serve as a unique educational attraction when it opens.

It’s probably a good thing no cost estimate was provided because whatever the estimate, the actual cost will always be higher.

Like the cost for the art park, which went from $250,000 to nearly a million. Or the cost of the library, which MRA dutifully threw more money at. Or the cost of buying a water company.

Are all these numbers making your head spin? That is why it is important to maintain a lack of curiosity about what the people you elect are doing with your money, because if you don’t you might not like what you find out.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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5 Responses to The Importance Of Not Being Curious About Local Government

  1. JC says:

    The Poplar Project changing its direction is really weird. Tom Platt (a friend of mine) was the project director, and died a year and a half ago from cancer. He had set the project in motion with local sustainable logger/miller Mark Vander Meer . The project was on the Clouse family farm (of Pink Grizzly fame). This was at one time a slam dunk great project. So there must be a really crazy back story how, after Platt’s death, Vander Meer and Clouse pulled out of the project. I’d imagine some real nefarious politics and development backdoor issues. Vander Meer would know the answer. He’s a straight up dude.

  2. TC says:

    Your latest entry was spot-on, as usual. Im always flabbergasted that a local media outlet will report a story but then is unable to connect dots (even when in a straight line) to flesh out the story.
    Case in point – the Sleepy Inn. KECI recently reported that Engen/Buchanan started moving forward on this property in Jan (long before Covid was a thing here). That completely debunks the notion that they had to act quickly without appraisal. Today, the was a Missoulian Letter to Editor detailing how an appraisal could have been done, even with accelerated timeline. So basically even point the City/County/MRA has made about purchase is being proven false/untrustworthy.
    Will local media follow up in-depth? Doubtful bordering on no F’ing chance. Will the good liberals (New Party) that rule over Missoula ask questions and demand accountability? Doubtful bordering on no F’ing chance!!!
    Missoula – same as its always been for the last 16 years!!!

  3. Djinn&Tonic says:

    Rocky Mountain Bio aids pandemic testing, helps grow Missoula’s bio sector

    A call for serum from a Missoula hospital at the height of the pandemic sent Rocky Mountain Biologicals racing to fill the request.

    Now, the material has entered the global market, adding another notch to Missoula’s growing cluster of bio-based companies.

    “We have been extremely busy lately,” said Jeff Pease, the chief business development officer at RMBIO. “Some of the things that have come our way, especially dealing with COVID-19, is something we never imagined we’d get in to, because it’s not our core business at all to be dealing with viruses like that.”

    Pease recently joined a handful of other executives from across the state to discuss their international trade portfolio with the Montana World Trade Center.

    Founded in 2004, RMBIO produces the proteins and serums needed to test cell cultures for a number of applications, including pharmaceuticals and diagnosing. It sources the materials to both national and international clients.

    “Our normal product line is this serum, or the media used for these specific cell lines that these companies use to create vaccines,” said Pease. “They’ll take our serum or media and use it to grow different cells and see how well it grows with their particular cell line that they’re creating a vaccine for.”

    The company ramped up its efforts in March when it received a call from Community Medical Center in Missoula, which was looking for a viral transport medium. The material is needed to submerge the nasal application and preserve the sample for testing.

    But with testing for COVID-19 on the rise, the industry was facing a bottleneck and the media was in short supply. RMBIO received the recipe from the CDC and the Mayo Clinic and reviewed it with its in-house scientists, who agreed they could make it.

    “We went ahead and ordered the products in so we could hit it as fast and as hard as possible,” said Pease. “We wanted to do what we could, first in Missoula then Montana and the surrounding states.”

    Within a month of production, RMBIO was shipping the medium to hospitals around Montana. Now, Pease said, the material is heading to other countries.

    “I’m in contact at least twice a week with countries I’ve dealt with before in the serum business,” Pease said. “We are going global with this product as well. It’s been an incredible opportunity for us. It’s kept our employees nice and busy.”

    RMBIO is an active member of the Missoula Vaccine Partnership, and it continues to play a role in transforming western Montana’s economy.

    In recent years, a number of biotech firms have emerged on the scene including Innumune, DermaXon and Expesicor. Many interact with the Center for Translational Medicine at the University of Montana, which also conducts vaccine research.

    “Bioscience is significant and growing in Montana,” said Brigitta Miranda-Freer, executive director of the Montana World Trade Center. “Major pharma is expanding in our state. We have several smaller, agile bioscience firms that are playing essential roles in combating COVID-19, from supply change solutions to vaccine development.”

    UM President Seth Bodnar offered a similar view last month while showcasing the university’s vaccine research program and its efforts for a coronavirus cure. The opportunity to build on Missoula’s burgeoning bioscience cluster shows potential, he said, and it’s poised for future growth.

    “You’ve seen some amazing grains of sand come together and form a pretty nice pearl,” Bodnar said. “You’re starting to see the potential to build a really big biotech cluster right here. If we get the right type of investment – the venture capital and the incubation space – you could see much more than a biotech cluster right here in Missoula.”

    RMBIO has played a hand in leading that growth, and it’s seeing growth of its own – much of it driven by reputation. The firm was recently purchased by Welgene Inc, a South Korean company that specializes in manufacturing cell cultures and liquid agents.

    Pease said the union has opened new opportunities.

    “Welgene has an incredible group of world class scientists who can now take our product and tie that in with multiple different cell lines,” said Pease. “Once you get that reputation then the bigger companies, the big pharma companies, will actually share their cell line with you as a company.

    “Our scientists can start working specifically for those to improve the media for that cell growth. That’s our ultimate goal, to continue doing what we’re doing, but to have these pharma companies coming to Montana and using our scientists on site.”

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