NorthWestern Energy customers are about to get shocked with a huge increase in their electric rates if the Public Service Commission grants NorthWestern Energy’s request to increase residential rates. The public hearings are over and final legal briefs are being submitted. But, like a cancer waiting to metastasize, it has not gone away, and it will wreak havoc on the very people who can least afford it.
Don’t be fooled by efforts to minimize the impact of this rate case. Residential customers are facing a 28% increase in their rates compared to a year ago. And thanks to a “negotiated settlement” reached by the big guys (the utility, the state, and large customers) large users won’t see any increase at all. Bottom line this increase falls unfairly on small customers like you and me.
The average residential customer will have to come up with an additional $284 annually or more. Some people may be able to afford it. Some folks can go out and find another job to make ends meet but lots of people can’t do that…particularly Montana seniors. They will be choosing between paying their power bill, buying food, paying rent or purchasing medicine.
While we are waiting to hear how much residential rates will increase, large investors are buying up NorthWestern stock. On May 15 Market Beat reported that six “institutional investors” are increasing their holdings of NorthWestern stock. They are watching this rate case and they like what they see — for stockholders.
The corporate largesse doesn’t end with investors’ stock purchases. In 2022 NorthWestern CEO, Bob Rowe, received over $3.3 million in total compensation. Rowe, now retired, has been replaced by the former Chief Operations Officer, Brian Bird. In 2022 Bird made over $2.6 million. For comparison, Mark Johnson, the manager of the state’s largest electric co-op, makes a little over $450 thousand per year.
While you let that soak in, remember that large customers have cut a deal with NorthWestern Energy which lets them off the hook completely. They will be seeing no increase. We are talking about oil refineries, mining companies and large retailers, many of them owned by multinational corporations. Doesn’t seem fair, does it?
So, all that stands between small customers and an expensive and unfair rate increase is the Montana Public Service Commission. They alone have the power to stop or adjust this rate increase. In addition to all five members belonging to the Republican Party with its long history of supporting big corporations, the PSC has been a dysfunctional circus sideshow, dominated by bickering and in fighting. Commissioner Bukacek was recently quoted in the Billings Gazette saying, “This historic unprecedented increase that people are talking about, it’s $25 to $30 a month. That’s the cost of three to four dozen eggs.” Seems like it’s no big deal to her. Of course, she makes over $100,000 per year and has a medical practice on the side.
But there is cause to think the PSC might do the right thing and reject the “settlement” being proposed by some of the players. Several of the commissioners have established that they are no friends of the utility companies. Those members may be able to bring along others to build a majority. But they all need to hear from residential customers here in Montana. Call, email, write a postcard, let the PSC know that people are concerned, and people are watching.
A reminder of Republican Senator Jeremy Trebas’ dirty dealings in a commercial building in Great Falls.
Jeremy Buys a Building
In May of last year, Jeremy put up a Facebook post announcing that he bought the old Church of Christ Scientists at 1300 1st Ave N. in Great Falls through a shell company, Rearview Mirror LLC. The building was purchased at a significant discount, because an automatic sprinkler system had to be installed to bring the building up to code.
Jeremy Scams on Property Taxes
The building has been classified by the Montana Department of Revenue as “exempt” because it had been a church. Jeremy rented the building to The Break Forth Bible Church, likely thinking this would preserve the property tax exemption. Problem is it doesn’t. The exemption requires that the building be owned by a church. He paid just $267 in property taxes for the first half of 2022. This for a 9,000 foot commercial building close to downtown. The property is still misclassified by the Department of Revenue. (Don’t worry folks, we’ll contact them).
Jeremy Goes to Helena (Can You Say Self-Dealing?)
Jeremy introduced Senate Bill 195 in the Senate. The bill exempted his building from being required to have an automatic sprinkler system. The bill was opposed by Fire Marshalls across the state and was heavily amended, removing all of Trebas’ language exempting his own building.
Jeremy Puts the Building Up for Sale. . . at an Inflated Price
Now, Jeremy has put the building up for sale on Craig’s List. Sale price? $475,000!
So let’s break that number down a little. The appraised value of the building is $359,505. Keep in mind that appraisals generally assume that the building complies with building codes and other legal requirements. In other words, they do not discount for needed repairs. But the market does and WTF406 is confident that Trebas purchased the building below the appraised value. Now, after failing to change the law to benefit himself, Trebas has a financial albatross hanging around his neck. Will he find tenants for the building? Will he find someone to purchase the building at his inflated price? We think the answer will be “no” on both counts. Too bad for Jeremy.
To read about the whole story follow these links to our previous articles.
The City Commission has decided to send the Safety Levy to the ballot. Commissioners previously sought a property tax increase of 191% to fund the levy, essentially doubling the city’s budget to support this single levy. Outspoken supporters of the levy, like Commissioner Rick Tryon, quickly changed their tune when met with negative feedback from citizens. Although they’re still out of touch with what homeowners in Great Falls can afford, the safety levy is headed to the ballot, asking homeowners to approve a 65% increase to their property taxes.
How Much Would the Levy Cost You?
The city has noted that a 65% increase would come out to about $156.00 for a $100,000 house and around $300 for a $200,000 house. . A quick look at Realtor.com shows that the average home price in Great Falls is far nearer to $300,000. Using a house valued at 100,000 is a useless example of how the levy would affect most homeowners. So why is the city intentionally downplaying the expected cost to homeowners? Put simply, they know we can’t afford a 65% increase any more than we could afford their initial 191% increase.
Now the city is also looking to spend $150,000 on a private firm to advocate for the levy. That’s right, they’re spending over $150,000 of OUR tax money in an attempt to ALSO raise our property taxes by 65% Combine the hefty PR price tag with the arguably misleading housing market numbers being provided, and it seems the Commission is well aware that their ask is not practicable, affordable, or popular.
What’s the Return on Investment?
With the city seeking such a major tax increase, it’s important voters know what exactly this levy will fund. Of particular note, the levy would add two School Resource Officers (SROs) to the budget, with a total cost of $230,000 to the taxpayers. However, multiple studies have shown that SROs in no way increase the safety of schools. Rather, their presence has been shown to be harmful to the student population, particularly students of color. The National Education Association reports, “Yet research shows that SROs do little to reduce on-campus violence or mass shootings, and their presence is often damaging to students of color and students with disabilities. Having SROs in schools can actually create higher rates of behavioral incidents and spikes in suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.”
Studies also show that more police does not necessarily increase community safety. There is no indication that increasing law enforcement’s budget will result in a reduction of serious crime in our city. While police respond to crime, preventing crime is done by increasing community resources, like access to treatment programs for substance use and mental health. Do we want to focus on punishing criminals, or preventing crime from happening in the first place?
Can Great Falls Afford Higher Taxes?
In addition to concerns with the allocation of levy funds, the fact remains that Great Falls citizens are simply overtaxed and underpaid. An emerging housing crisis has already exacerbated the Great Falls housing market, and a 65% tax increase could be the final nail in the coffin for homeowners on a fixed income. Voters already approved a county safety levy last fall. Schools and other vital services also routinely rely on levies to support the increased costs of meeting community needs. If this massive safety levy were to pass, it would likely mean disaster for future levy attempts for other entities, like our schools. If education and public services deteriorate due to lack of funding, we could create an endless loop of increased crime and increased police budgets with a city that isn’t any safer.
Put simply, Great Falls citizens don’t have extra cash to support a 65% property tax increase.
Which begs the question, why is the Commission pushing dramatic property tax increases on homeowners while simultaneously giving massive tax breaks to companies like Calumet? How did the city decide our budget could forego $2.77 MILLION DOLLARS from the refinery, and then turn around and ask homeowners to pay an extra 65% on their houses? Read about the city’s massive tax-gift to Calumet here: https://wtf406.com/2022/09/county-approves-another-tax-break-for-refinery/
So which is it Great Falls? Do homeowners need to pay 65% more to fund a levy? Or are we so well-funded that we can give big-businesses massive tax breaks? Perhaps Great Falls will have fewer safety needs when none of us can afford to live here? Vote for the safety levy, and we’ll soon find out.
Nursing homes, particularly in rural communities, are closing across the state. The residents in these facilities are often forced to move away from family and friends to find a place that will accept them. The problem is Medicaid payments from the state for these facilities are far below what is needed to cover costs. Everyone knows about this problem, and Gianforte proposed a paltry increase while trying to save the rest of the budget surplus to give tax breaks to his rich friends. Problem is it’s too little, too late. Here’s an explanation from Big Sky 55+
First, A Little Math (Don’t Worry, This is Simple)
The current reimbursement rate for Medicaid patients is $208 per patient per day. The current cost of operation for nursing homes is estimated to be at least $279 per patient per day. Bottom line is that the current reimbursement rate is at least $71 a day short of covering expenses. But wait, there’s more! For every $1.00 the state spends for Medicaid expenses, the federal government pays $2.37. Simply put, for every dollar the state “saves” by not funding Medicaid services, it leaves $2.37 on the table. This only makes sense to Republicans.
Gianforte is Supposed to be a Good Businessman!?!?
The last legislature commissioned a study to determine what it would cost to stop the crashing of long term care facilities in Montana. Though the full cost is probably higher depending on the facility, the legislative study recommended a “benchmark” of $279 per day to cover costs. Gianforte’s budget proposed paying 88% of that amount. Last time we checked, any business has to meet expenses to keep its doors open. Doesn’t matter if you cover 88% percent or 95% of your costs, you still go out of business if you can’t cover 100%. But, as we have said before, Republicans don’t understand Economics 101.
Democratic Proposal Passed the House
In response to the obviously inadequate proposal in Gianforte’s budget, Representative Mary Caferro (D-Helena) introduced HB 649, which increased funding for long term care to the benchmark amount. Surprisingly, the bill passed on the House floor and is now on its way to the Senate.
Great Falls Republicans Split on Supporting Full Funding
There are two distinct factions in the Great Falls Republican Party which have been at war with each other for years. One camp is the local Central Committee which is composed of less extreme, corporatist members. The other camp is the tinfoil hat conspiracy crowd which is centered around the local Pachyderm Club. The dominant faction is the Pachyderm Club.
Corporatist Lackey Republicans for HB 649
Conspiracy Crazy Republicans against HB 649
If the above chart makes you think that the crazy crowd doesn’t run the local Republican Party in Cascade County, we remind you that the crazy Republican office holders in Cascade County include our Sheriff Jesse Slaughter, Clerk and Recorder Sandra Merchant, County Commissioner Rae Grulkowski, and perhaps the weirdest elected official in the state, Randy Pinocci. There has been a lot of news coverage about this split in Cascade County. Here’s just one example.
Hopefully the bill will be well received in the Senate. Montana has a huge budget surplus, and the people in nursing homes are among the most vulnerable in the state. Pushing them out the door is unnecessary and inhumane. Question is, does the Republican Party care?
Some days it feels like we’re running a satire site here. I sit down to re-cap the Worst of the Worst and don’t know if I should start with the craziest (Lola Sheldon Galloway) or the stupidest (Daniel Emrich). So instead I’ll start with the most self-serving.
Lola and Steven Galloway are millionaire landlords, and they’re shaping new laws to make themselves even richer. This week, Steven introduced legislation (HB 439) that would make it easier for landlords to evict tenants, and invade their privacy. Read about Steven’s obliquely self-serving bill here: https://wtf406.com/2023/01/galloway-attacks-renters-rights/
Now Steven’s receiving help from his friend to further diminish renter’s rights. Senator Steve Fitzpatrick introduced SB 105, a bill that would “prohibit rent control on private properties.” That means landlords like the Galloways can charge insanely high rental prices. Without rent control Montana’s housing crisis will worsen. Folks will either become unhoused, or they’ll be forced to move out of state. We’re already seeing a huge increase of families living in RVs on the side of the road in Bozeman. Bills like these will worsen the housing crisis. Fitzpatrick’s bill benefits the wealthy (ie all the elected Reps in Great Falls) at the expense of the rest of us.
Most Heartless is actually a tie this week.
The “Pro-Life” Party was hard at work killing kids again. Steve Gist, Scott Kerns, Steven Galloway, and Lola Galloway all voted against funding for youth suicide prevention. Montana continually leads the nation in suicides. Youth are particularly at risk, and other bills being heard will likely increase the number of suicide attempts by kids in our state. Denying funding for suicide prevention efforts while simultaneously passing bills that will increase youth suidice? That’s some villain shit right there. Read about why SB99 is going to kill kids here: https://wtf406.com/2023/01/sb-99-likely-to-increase-youth-suicide/
Which brings us to why Senator Emrich should probably sit down when anything even science-adjacent is discussed. Emrich is trying to ban the teaching of “scientific theory.” No, seriously. The theory of gravity must have hit this breadstick in the head because he clearly lacks even a third-grade level of scientific understanding. Read this somehow-not-a-joke bill here: https://leg.mt.gov/bills/2023/billpdf/LC2215.pdf
Lola Galloway is all over the list this week! Galloway has introduced a bill that would require ALL cell phones in Montana be installed with an ”obscenity” filter. Notably, she provides no definition for “obscenity.” Make no mistake, this is a government surveillance bill. Lola employs a familiar GOP tactic here and is trying to disguise her censorship attempts as an effort to protect children. Her bill asserts that the filter is necessary so kids can’t access obscene materials. Protecting kids from the dark corners of the internet would indeed be a worthy cause- but installing surveillance software on every phone in the state is an insane way to go about it. Further, it’s the responsibility of PARENTS to monitor their child’s internet usage. It sure as hell shouldn’t come in the form of an opt-out piece of government surveillance on every cell phone in the state. Much like the other bullshit “obscenity” legislation we’ve seen this session, the real goal is BIG GOVERNMENT eyes on us and attempts to limit access to material far-right nationalist Christians don’t like. That’s going to be anything LGBTQ+ and anything non-theistic. If Lola actually gave a fuck about kids, she probably would have voted for the suicide-prevention funding mentioned above. Read the bill here: https://legiscan.com/MT/text/HB349/id/2668315
The GOP is taking huge steps to invade our private lives, take away our homes, and make themselves rich all at once. Great Falls, this is getting embarrassing. If you disagree with the dystopian future our Great Falls Reps are trying to write into law, then tell them! Find session information, look up bills, and contact your representatives here: https://leg.mt.gov/session/
When he’s not working diligently to keep his rental tenants in poverty with his hand out at their doors, he’s working in the House to make sure they can join the growing unhoused community in Great Falls. That’s right, Great Falls’ reigning Dairy King and local landlord, Rep. Steven “Mr. LOLA” Galloway, is heading legislation (HB-282) to speed up the eviction process for renters in Montana.
Specifics noted in the bill include:
Protections for landlords to issue 24 hour notices for property access or to correct rental agreement violations with tenants facing eviction proceedings within 3 days for refusing property access.
Putting extra stress on our already overloaded courts by significantly shortening the filing due dates and hearing scheduling windows. Meaning, where courts and tenants typically had a cushion of anywhere from 10-20 days before, multiple lines of Sections 70-24 and 70-33, MCA have been amended to an allowance of only 5 days instead.
Interestingly, or maybe better put – strategically, in reference to the 24 hour notices, there are no exceptions for tenants who may be working out of town, be hospitalized, on vacation, or otherwise. In sum, tenants who are working hard, severely ill, or enjoying time off away from home can find themselves in the crosshairs of their landlord’s impatience.
Rep Galloway was quoted by Montana Public Radio as saying this legislation is an attempt at “alleviating the stress on the judicial system that has more pressing issues”, but if that’s truly the case, why shorten their working time? With Rep. Galloway himself identifying that our courts have more pressing issues, these amendments read as a greasy attempt at further overwhelming the courts and floating their eviction actions with little to no pushback.
While some supporters of the bill say this proposed legislation will be used for “worst case scenarios”, anyone with any kind of sense can see that this is the first of many blows to deliberately weaken already feeble tenant’s rights, and Rep. Steven Galloway is more than happy to be the champion of those endeavors.