U.S. Sen. Steve Daines listens during a meeting with local officials Tuesday in the meeting room at Bear Paw Development Corp.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., stopped in Havre Tuesday to continue his tour to visit all 56 counties of Montana to discuss with local leaders about what is going on in the area.
Several local officials and leaders met with Daines at the Bear Paw Development Corp. meeting room, with much, but not all, of the discussion related tot he COVID-19 pandemic.
Daines is running for re-election this year and faces Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock, who cannot run for re-election due to term limits, and Wendie Fredrickson, who is running as a Green Party candidate although the Green Party told the Havre Daily News they have no affiliation with her or the PAC supporting her, in the November election.
Bear Paw Development Corp. Executive Directive Paul Tuss said he thinks the recent decision by Amtrak to cut services along the Hi-Line from daily service to three times per week starting in October is a really bad idea, particularly during a global pandemic.
The Empire Builder is the most-used long-distance route in Amtrak’s entire system, he said, adding that there is no other long-distance route in Amtrak’s system, which has more riders than the Empire Builder.
He said he is hopeful Daines will do whatever he can to assure that the Hi-Line can continue to have daily service with the Amtrak here on the Hi-Line.
Daines said he thinks this is a concern to everybody and that this reduction is a step in direction toward ultimately illuminating services.
“It is very, very troubling, and I will tell you you can get great unified support with your Montana delegation,” he said. “One of the advantages Montana has as it relates to appropriations we are I think where there are senators one from each party on an appropriations committee, so the fact that we have a Republican, myself, and Democrat Jon Tester on the Appropriations Committee is frankly a good thing for Montana.”
Daines said the message the delegation has sent and will continue to send to Amtrak is that if it wants to see an increase in funding for Amtrak, it has to have daily service on the Hi-Line.
He doesn’t think it fully understands how critical that daily service is, he said.
Essential air is not going to be sufficient in eastern Montana, he said. The railroad is needed as well.
Tuss also discussed the request of an extension for the Census to be collected.
The original deadline to collect census data from households was the end of October, he said, but recently the federal government pushed up that deadline from the end of October to the end of September.
He said that just doesn’t make a lot of sense given being in a global pandemic. What may end up happening is census workers will have to collect that data from people by physically coming to peoples houses and that’s probably the last thing many people want to have happen, he said.
His recommendation to Daines was to adhere to the original data collection deadline of the end of October versus pushing up to the end of September, he added.
The estimate is that for everyone not counted that ends up being $2,000 to the community they live in from the federal government they will not get per year, Tuss said, so, over the 10-year period the Census is good for ends up being $20,000 per person that is being missed out on and that is for health care, education, law enforcement, infrastructure, and it is just too important to cut the process short by a month.
Daines said the smaller a state the more it has to lose.
Montana stands also to gain another congressional seat from the census count, he said.
“We had two seats until the 1990 census, and Rhode Island just narrowly beat us out then. … It’s the Rhode Island seat we would get back with this census,” he said. “Based on projections, we believe we would get a second seat as long as the census numbers reveal the actual numbers here in Montana, so that’s a big deal for us too.”
He added that he has made that clear that it is needed for the extra time.
Hill County Commissioner Mike Wendand said he has concerns regarding agriculture.
He said one of the big problems in Havre and Hill County is the Milk River.
Drop 5 on the St. Mary Diversion, which flows water into the Milk River that provides water not only for irrigation, but for municipalities, had a catastrophic failure.
Daines said he visited Drop 2 and Drop 5 back in July, where he spent time with leaders of the project as well brought Department of Interior Assistant Secretary of Water and Science Tim Petty to discuss the project, needs and the hardships faced in the basin with this failure and future ability to pay.
Wendland also said how important the health department is during pandemic and how good they have been keeping Hill County informed.
Hill County Health Department Public Health Director Kim Larson discussed COVID within the community and the re-opening of schools and the upcoming flu season.
“In Hill County, I feel we’ve done a pretty good job since March of preventing COVID-19 spreading quite a bit in our community,” she said. “(Monday) we had a big jump in 15 positives in one day, but it is all from contact tracing and one is from travel outside of the county.”
She said it is concerning to the community when they see numbers go up, but that will continue to happen.
Schools are opening, she said. Havre Public Schools opens today, Montana State University-Northern opens Monday and the smaller schools are open already.
“I’m just holding my breath right now in anticipating cases,” Larson said. “I do have three nurses working full-time on contact tracing, and that has pretty much taken a big toll on the other programs in my health department. Family planning services are still available by appointment only, but my two nurses who do family planning are now doing contact tracing.”
She said the department does contact tracing every hour of the day until they get ahold of everyone they need to.
Daines said that back in March Congress passed a $2.2 trillion CARES Act which secured $10 billion for vaccine development as well as other drugs and therapeutics.
“We are cautiously optimistic that some time in the fourth quarter we may see millions of doses for the American people, there will be nothing mandatory there is no mandate on it,” he said. “… Thankful for great scientists, great doctors, so we may be turning a corner here in the fourth quarter, so we’ll keep our fingers crossed. We’ll have more information probably in the next 30 days.”
He said there are trials currently taking place in Bozeman and Butte.
With flu season coming up, Larson said, she isn’t sure her department will have enough staff do all the flu shots as they normally do.
She said that the flu vaccine is coming and she has been working with the state health department on that, adding that she’ll probably have to hire some temporary people to help them out.
Havre Assistant Chief of Police Jason Barkus said one of the major issues law enforcement has had more than in years past is recruitment and retention of officers.
“With the push to end qualified immunity that could really become an issue for recruitment and for retention both,” he said.
Qualified immunity is the concept that officials cannot be sued for actions taken in performing their constitutional duties.
Barkus said that, in some cases, he is losing some members to state jobs that may pay a little more, adding that in recent years they have lost numerous people to the railroad because of the higher wages.
Barkus said they are here for the community.
Daines said it shouldn’t be about defunding the law enforcement it should be about defending law enforcement.
“I think that’s where we need to be as leaders at this moment to keep encouraging and standing with members of law enforcement,” he said.
Barkus also said the police department has seen an uptick in heroin, meth and domestic abuse.
“It’s gotten worse,” he said. “More of a push of heroin into our years than we’ve seen in the past two years.”
Montana State University-Northern Chancellor Greg Kegel invited Daines to come visit Northern and see all the work being done on campus.
He said Northern is part of the Montana University System, which is put together for face-to-face instruction not a remote system.
“Kids don’t come for a remote experience they come to do things face-to-face and enjoy the university experience,” he said.
He is starting this upcoming school year on two things: The university is going to do everything it can to preserve the safety for the students, staff and faculty, and still be available to deliver quality education.
“We are going to do the very best job we can,” Kegel said. “We are going to need some grace, we are going to need some help, it’s going to cost a little bit of money.”
He said Northern is making advancements and improvements with technology every day, but it is not going to be enough when students arrive on campus Monday.
The hit Northern is having, he said, is the fear from students who are worried about coming back to school.
Havre Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Julea Robbins said she has been hearing from some businesses in Havre and across the Hi-Line who have said they have been doing great, while others are afraid they won’t be able to stay open.
She said retail stores are struggling as well as those who depend on tourism.
Canadians are a huge part of money brought here, she said, as well as the traffic going to and from Glacier.