A brief stop in Baker gave local business owners a chance to tell a sitting U.S. Senator what the real life impact a decision in the nation’s capital has had in eastern Montana.
Owner of Spiffy’s Mobil 1 Express Lube and Wash, Jay Quenzer said that his business dropped about 25 percent when the construction on the Keystone XL pipeline was stopped in late January.
He said that the construction business had helped his business to survive during the pandemic.
Jodie O’Donnell had a RV park where many of the construction workers were living and by the end of the day that the project was stopped, many had already left. “Hopefully we’ll have another pipeline coming in the summertime. In the fall, we usually have some hunters,” she explained.
The mayor of Baker, Steve Zachmann, was just one of the local officials who told the visiting senator of the financial impact the loss of jobs, business and taxes was already having on the community. “It is going to have a ripple effect.”
One local impact has been and will be in health care, according to Dave Espeland, the hospital administrator at the Fallon Medical Complex.
“You probably know that Medicare is a really big part of business for us. All these rural communities pretty much live and die by Medicare. Unfortunately, Medicare doesn’t really pay its fair share. About 60 percent of our revenue comes from Medicare. We have to rely on the people in the community to subsidize us. Fallon County gives us about a million dollars a year in subsidies. We lose about a million dollars a year, so it basically makes up that difference,” he told the senator. “This pipeline is what would actually punt a lot of that subsidy to us…. so it is very important to us that we see it go through to actually be sure that we have affordable health care here.”
“Alternatively, without that revenue coming in, I have to charge more money for services,” he said. “That doesn’t do very well for the people in this community. If you are out of work or struggling to stay in work, it is a very big deal. So I appreciate all the efforts you are making to get this pushed through.”
Even the owner of Baker Furniture just a few blocks south of where the senator was visiting said that there has been an impact.
Another person explained that there is another impact to the loss of jobs and income. “A lot of times, companies that come through are donating and investing in the community as they come through here,” he said. “One of the things that we lose is the investment in our students. Small town students deserve a lot of investment. The money that is spent in (local) businesses is not being funneled into big corporate investors.”
Local businesses are reinvesting the money locally, he added. “It is good for the quality of life.”
For Mayor Zachmann, the pipeline is crucial to the economy. “That alone would allow these businesses to recover from 2020 because of the number of people here. Some of those (pipeline) employees were spending $500 to $1,000 a day in subsistence costs within the community. We would have had a fairly good recovery and would not need to count on the payouts from the federal government because this would all basically be private money infused into the community.”
“That just dried up on January 20. It is just a huge shock to the community. Now, we have to just struggle through and find another way. The light at the end of the tunnel got dim pretty quick,” he told the senator.
The schools are also being affected, according to Baker Superintendent Aaron Skogen. The loss of the pipeline is affecting the tax base and that impacts the schools. From the schools perspective, the biggest thing is the mill value, he said.
“It is lowering the revenue from our taxpayers. We rely heavily on oil and gas,” the superintendent said.
The Montana senator said that he was there when President Joseph Biden was inaugurated and heard the call to bring America back together. “Then he sat down and killed this project. That is not uniting us. That is dividing us.”