12 Montana Counties Officially Establish Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority

Twelve Montana counties have officially founded the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority to advocate for the return of passenger rail service across southern Montana. The finalized joint resolution, fully executed this week, seals the commissioner actions and provides for the appointment of one representative from each county to serve on the authority. Gallatin County was the first to act on July 28, and Powell County the last on Nov. 18. 

“Counties in Montana have done what has never been done before: establish the first regional passenger rail authority in the state. This will set the stage for re-establishing regular passenger rail service through the southern tier of the state — a transformational project for Montana that will add to and complement the Empire Builder along the Hi-Line,” Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier said. “We hope to schedule our first board meeting of the authority in December or January and get this train moving!” 

Per MCA 7-14-16, ”the purpose of the authority is to provide for the preservation and improvement of abandoned rail service for agriculture, industry or passenger traffic and to provide for the preservation of abandoned railroad right-of-way for future transportation uses, when determined to be practicable and necessary for the public welfare.” The authority constitutes the governance structure to investigate, analyze, seek funding for and develop long-distance, inter-city rail service to further the health, safety, welfare and economic prosperity throughout Montana. 

The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority board comprises commissioner-appointed representatives from each of the following counties:  

  • Broadwater 
  • Butte-Silver Bow 
  • Dawson 
  • Gallatin 
  • Granite 
  • Jefferson 
  • Missoula 
  • Park 
  • Powell 
  • Prairie 
  • Sanders 
  • Wibaux 

“The Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority will foster a more connected Montana,” Butte-Silver Bow Commissioner Shawn Fredrickson said. “Butte-Silver Bow is looking forward to working with the rest of the state to make it become a reality.” 

“Glendive/Dawson County stands to benefit greatly both economically and socially through the restoration of passenger rail service,” Dawson County Economic Development Executive Director Jason Stuart said. “Economically, having passenger rail service and restoring the use of our historic passenger rail depot will draw more visitors and tourists through and to Glendive, creating greater economic opportunity for our Main Street businesses. With Makoshika State Park topping 100,000 visitors for the first time in its history in 2020, we have no doubt that providing passenger rail service to the gates of Montana’s largest and most spectacular state park will help drive visitation to Makoshika and Glendive even higher. Socially, having passenger rail service will be a great boon to our residents’ travel options, in particular for travel to the western side of the state. Dawson County could not be more pleased to be a founding member of the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority, and we look forward to lending our voice to this important effort.” 

Strohmaier and partner counties began working on the Big Sky Passenger Rail Authority in the spring of 2020. In September, nearly 400 people across the nation attended the virtual Montana Passenger Rail Summit hosted by Missoula County. The summit featured passenger rail experts from Washington, D.C., to Washington state and received support from Sen. Jon Tester, Sen. Steve Daines, Rep. Greg Gianforte and Gov. Steve Bullock. A recording of the summit is available online at https://montanapassengerrailsummit.org/summit.  

Thank you, Missoula County Elections!

Election Day 2020 was an impressive turnout for Missoula County!  

Missoula County has 91,080 registered voters, and 72,632 of them cast ballots in the Nov. 3 general election. This equates to a 79.74% voter turnout and a ballot return rate of 90.84%. This is an impressive jump from the 2016 general election, when 60,088 ballots were cast by 81,579 registered voters, resulting in a 73.66% voter turnout, with 71% of ballots returned by mail.  

For the safety and health of our Missoula community, the Missoula Board of County Commissioners approved an all-mail election that was allowed under Gov. Bullock’s directive. Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman and his team incorporated best practices from the all-mail June primary election and set up an efficient work plan to make Election Day a success.  

As early as Sept. 23, staff, election judges and election aides were hard at work preparing. The Elections Center opened for early voting on Oct. 2 and then on Oct. 9, absentee ballots and the “I Voted” sticker mailed to over 79,000 active registered voters. Once the Elections Office drive-thru ballot drop-off opened the week of Oct. 12, a steady stream of vehicles hummed through the parking lot to deliver ballots. On Election Day eve, an estimated 82.4% of ballots had already been returned.   

The morning started early on Election Day, with the first person in line around 5:15 a.m. The line held a steady pace throughout the day as it ebbed and flowed between 200-250 people until 8 p.m., with an average wait time of 1.5-2 hours. Those waiting were mostly there for same-day registration, change of address or to register to vote in Missoula County (new, precinct to precinct or county to county). Thanks to coordinated efforts with ASUM, the Election Day shuttle ran every 15 minutes from McCormick Park to help everyone conveniently access the Election Center with ease. 

Citizens delivered pizzas, and a snack table also appeared, full of energy bars and water to keep people satisfied while they waited. A solo guitarist played to pass the time, while another voter pulled along their wireless speaker on a cart, booming their beats. Children joined their parents and were enamored by the appearance of Super Voter and our helpful sheriff’s deputies. When the last person exited the Elections Center around 10:15 p.m., staff had served over 1,150 voters, of which 328 are new voters in Missoula County’s system.

Eleven ballot drop-off locations were also busy throughout the county. Each station had a group of about five friendly workers accepting ballots and were stationed throughout Missoula and all the way out in Lolo, Frenchtown and Seeley Lake. These locations were a quick and easy way to vote and helped reduce the congestion in the Elections Center parking lot. All ballot drop-off locations, even as far away as Seeley Lake, had their final batch of ballots delivered to the center by 9 p.m. for signature verification and processing.  

At the fairgrounds across town, the counting center buzzed with ballots delivered from the Elections Center. Montana law allowed counting to begin on Monday, Nov. 2, and the team worked hard until about 11 p.m. on Election Day. New to this general election was the ability for anyone to watch the process via the YouTube live stream, which captured both days of counting.

The 45-member team consisted of five DS-850 high speed tabulator operators who received ballots from the five tabulator runners. If a ballot was sorted by the tabulator for review, the runners also carried ballots to the resolution and write-in boards for evaluation. The 15-member resolution board reviewed ballots to determine voter intent using the Secretary of State materials provided in the election judge handbook. Additionally, a 15-member board was designated to validate and tally ballots with write-in candidates. They also assisted the resolution board. Once processed and counted, two ballot sealers placed the counted ballots in ballot style containers.

One individual was responsible for operating the Balotar machine, which was used when the resolution board determined a ballot must be duplicated for a reason, such as a torn ballot.

On Friday, Nov. 13, the county Audit Board met to complete the post-election audit. In Montana, after each federal election, the Secretary of State’s office will randomly select precincts that must be hand counted by the county and compared to machine totals to ensure that the equipment worked correctly. Missoula County completed a successful audit of precincts Chief90, Clinton92 and Evaro94. This is done in addition to the public testing on and before Election Day to ensure that all equipment functioned properly on Election Day.

Missoula County verified and finalized the election results at the canvass on Tuesday, Nov. 17, when Elections Administrator Bradley Seaman, Missoula County Auditor Dave Wall and Missoula County Commissioners Dave Strohmaier and Josh Slotnick accounted for every ballot cast and ensured that each valid vote was included in the official results. This included absentee, early voting, Election Day, provisional, challenged, and uniformed and overseas citizen ballots. The canvass provides the space for resolution of any discrepancies to ensure completeness and accuracy before certifying the election.

Election Day couldn’t have happened without the team of five full-time elections staff, who led 284 extra workers who worked a total of 1,340 eight-hour days, – or a total of 453 extra day shifts – between Sept. 23 – Nov. 3.

Thank you to everyone who played a part in ensuring the integrity of the election in Missoula County.

Missoula County Elections Office Issues Important Reminders for November Election

As preparations continue for the Nov. 3 general election, the Missoula County Elections Office wants to remind voters of important information, including upcoming key dates.

Since Missoula County opted to conduct the election by mail, polling places will not be open on Election Day. All active registered voters will receive a ballot after they’re mailed Friday, Oct. 9. Ballots are due back to the Elections Office by 8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3. Postmarks are not sufficient. Return postage is paid.

Residents can verify they are registered to vote at their current address at www.myvoterpagemt.com. Residents who need to register to vote or update their registration need to fill out the voter registration form found at http://missoula.co/registertovote.

Voters should keep the following dates in mind as the election approaches:

Friday, Oct. 2: All elections services, including voter registration, will be provided at the warehouse on the east side of the Elections Center complex at 140 N. Russell St. Voters should enter the parking lot at the corner of Prince and Wyoming streets. Look for the large “Enter Here” sign.

Friday, Oct. 2: Ballots will become available for in-person voting at the Elections Center. Voters can come by the Elections Center weekdays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. until Election Day if they want to vote a ballot in person instead of their mailed ballot. The office also will offer extended hours leading up to and on Election Day:

  • Saturday, Oct. 24: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • Monday-Friday, Oct. 26-30: 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.
  • Saturday, Oct. 31: 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.
  • Monday, Nov. 2: 8 a.m. 7 p.m.
  • Tuesday, Nov. 3: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. 

(Note: Office will be closed Monday, Oct. 12, in observance of Indigenous Peoples Day.)

If a voter chooses to vote at the Elections Center and does not wish to use their mailed ballot, their mailed ballot will be voided before the database will issue a new one. Residents who vote before Oct. 9 will still receive the voided ballot in the mail, but the voter database will not be able to accept the voided ballot if another ballot has been accepted.

Friday, Oct. 9: Ballots will be mailed out, which is the earliest the office can send them, per state statute. If voters have not received their ballot by Tuesday, Oct. 13, they should contact the Elections Office.

Tuesday, Oct. 13: The Elections Office will hold a satellite voter event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Frenchtown Fire Station, 16875 Marion St. Residents can register to vote, receive a replacement ballot, vote a ballot in person or drop off a ballot at this event.

Tuesday, Oct. 20: The Elections Office will hold a satellite voter event from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Seeley Lake Tax Extension Office, 3360 Hwy. 83 N. Residents can register to vote, receive a replacement ballot, vote a ballot in person or drop off a ballot at this event.

Monday, Oct. 26: Last day of regular registration. After this date, residents will need to appear in person at the Elections Office to register to vote or update their information.

Tuesday, Oct. 27: The Elections Office will hold a voter satellite event from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the University of Montana Adams Center. Residents can register to vote, receive a replacement ballot, vote a ballot in person or drop off a ballot at this event.

Tuesday, Oct. 27: The U.S. Postal Service recommends mailing a ballot seven days before the election to ensure delivery by Election Day. If a voter has not mailed their ballot by this date, they should drop it off at the Elections Center during the previously listed hours through Nov. 2, or at one of the Election Day ballot drop-off locations listed below.

Monday, Nov. 2: By state law, voter registration will be unavailable after 12 p.m. Voters can still drop off ballots, receive a replacement ballot or vote a ballot in person until 7 p.m. that day.

Tuesday, Nov. 3: Election Day. Residents can register to vote, receive a replacement ballot and vote in person at the Elections Center from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Drive-thru ballot drop-off will not be offered at the Elections Center on Election Day; this service will be provided at McCormick Park instead. The following ballot drop-off locations will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Election Day only:

  • Missoula Early Learning Center (Cold Springs), 2625 Briggs St.
  • Frenchtown Fire Station, 16875 Marion St.
  • Spring Meadows Fire Station, 9350 Ladyslipper Lane
  • Lolo Elementary School, 11395 Hwy. 93 S.
  • McCormick Park, 600 Cregg Lane
  • Clinton School Annex, 20359 E. Mullan Road
  • Potomac Greenough Community Center, 29827 Potomac Road
  • Seeley Lake Elementary School, 200 School Lane
  • Missoula County Fairgrounds, 1101 South Ave. W.
  • UM (Adams Center), 32 Campus Drive
  • Clearwater Credit Union, 2610 N. Reserve St.

Common voter questions are online at http://missoula.co/election2020faq. Residents can call the Elections Office at 406-258-4751 or email electioninfo@missoulacounty.us if they have additional questions.

Missoula County commissioners seek public comment on proposed budget

Following their preliminary budget hearing on Aug. 13, the Missoula County commissioners are encouraging members of the public to review and provide feedback on the proposed budget for fiscal year 2021.  

Missoula County’s preliminary budget for FY21 includes $170.2 million in overall revenue, which is based on certified taxable values the Montana Department of Revenue released earlier this month, as well as available cash savings from previous years.    

The budget calls for overall expenditures of $168.6 million, with much of that going toward sustaining current services and operations, which includes increases in operational expenses and negotiated increases in employee wages.   

Missoula County budgets an average of 2.5% to cover wage increases for the county’s 850 employees, about 85% of whom are covered by collective bargaining agreements. The county bargains those agreements in good faith and was able to honor those agreements this year. The county also continues to work toward paying all permanent employees a minimum, livable wage of $15 an hour. Wages for elected officials and contract employees were largely frozen due to current economic uncertainty.  

Approximately $1.1 million in the preliminary budget would fund new requests to enhance services and operations, such as funding new programs and adding new staff, equipment and technology.  

To minimize the impact on taxpayers, departments must fund all one-time requests with cash savings from the prior fiscal year. A dozen new, ongoing requests would require new property tax dollars. 

Read the detailed list of budget requests online or view the slideshow above.

If adopted as-is, the preliminary budget would mean an estimated property tax increase of $17.34 on a $350,000 home, or $1.45 a month.  

“What we choose to fund is a direct reflection of our values,” said commission Chair Josh Slotnick. “We believe this budget responds to the current needs of our county and also makes smart investments in our future. We encourage the public to take the time to review the budget and let us know your thoughts.” 

The county also anticipates approximately $3.4 million in COVID-19-related expenses in FY21. The county expects these expenses, which include operation of the county testing clinic, emergency operations center, non-congregate shelter and call center, to be reimbursable through CARES Act funding.  

Since Missoula County voters approved a 2-cent per gallon gas tax in June, the preliminary budget does not include any property tax increases for the county road fund. The county will be better able to predict revenue from the gas tax after it goes into effect in October.   

The public is encouraged to review budget documents, which are posted online at http://missoula.co/budgets. In addition to commenting during public meetings, residents can comment by leaving the commissioners a voicemail at 406-258-4877, emailing bcc@missoulacounty.us or mailing comments to the Commissioners’ Office, 200 W. Broadway St. Missoula, MT 59802.    

Commissioners will hold a virtual public hearing on the final budget at 2 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 3. They will consider any additional public comment before voting to adopt the final budget at an administrative public meeting later that month.  

Missoula County Attorney Appointed to Board of National District Attorneys Association

Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst

The National District Attorneys Association has named Missoula County Attorney Kirsten Pabst to its board of directors as a vice president and member of its executive committee.

“Pabst was chosen because of her leadership and long-standing commitment to criminal justice reforms and prosecutor well-being initiatives,” said NDAA President Nancy Parr. “We welcome her expertise and look forward to working with her.”

“It’s an honor to be chosen to work with such dedicated leaders,” Pabst said. “Criminal justice is at a crossroads on so many levels — racial inequality, gender inequality, mass incarceration – and it is exciting to be in a position to effect positive policy changes, not just at the local and state level, but nationally.”

Pabst has served as county attorney since 2015. She started her career as a prosecutor 25 years ago and has worked with the NDAA as a trial instructor for the past 20 years.

Formed in 1950, NDAA is the oldest and largest national organization representing state and local prosecutors in the country. With more than 5,000 members representing more than two-thirds of the state and local prosecutors’ offices, NDAA is recognized as the leading source of national expertise on the prosecution function and is a valuable resource for the media, academia, government and community leaders. NDAA’s mission is to provide state and local prosecutors with the knowledge, skills and support they need to ensure that justice is done and that public safety rights are protected.

Pabst will also chair NDAA’s new Prosecutor Wellbeing Task Force, designed to develop and disseminate resources, training and peer-to-peer exchanges for prosecutors around the country to promote their health and well-being.