Video: Closing Arguments

By Beacon Staff

They’ve outlasted intra-party competition in their hunt for one of the most powerful governmental seats in the Flathead. Now, incumbent Democrat Joe Brenneman and GOP challenger Pam Holmquist will go head to head in the race for the District 2 seat on the Flathead County Commission.

Commissioners serve as the legislative and executive branches of county government, and they often have the final say in major decisions, such as the budget or approving proposed development projects.

Both candidates believe they have what it takes to lead the area out of its economic slump while maintaining the characteristics that make Northwest Montana unique.

Joe Brenneman

Watch the above video Q and A with Joe Brenneman. Due to length, the video may take time to fully load.

In the wake of a deep recession, Brenneman stresses the importance of still having a financially solvent county budget.

“In a severe recession, Flathead County has done a good job managing our resources and the taxpayers’ money,” Brenneman said.

Other cities and counties throughout Montana are suffering from budget deficits and are facing tough cuts, Brenneman noted. He credits the entire commission and other elected officials with Flathead County’s financial success, but also believes he helped keep the county from going into the red when he was elected in 2005.

It’s this experience, mixed with other budgetary know-how, that Brenneman believes is essential for Flathead County to remain in the black.

“You need to have people who understand what’s going on and that’s one of the biggest assets I have,” Brenneman said. “Although I’m the youngest commissioner, I’m the one with the most experience.”

While his opponent has publicly criticized the county budget as “ballooning,” Brenneman asserts that the $81-million spending plan is actually a tribute to the county’s success in bringing in grants.

Of that $81 million, Brenneman said about $50 million comes from federal or state grants. The remaining $30 million is county tax revenue, and state law caps the maximum amount the county can tax its residents.

“This idea that Flathead County’s budget has ballooned in the last number of years indicates a severe lack of understanding of county budget policy,” Brenneman said. “It’s frustrating to have that thrown out there when in fact the large budget arguably could be a demonstration the county’s doing a good job bringing in grants.”

The sputtering economy is one of the biggest concerns county residents have, and Brenneman noted that it plays a role in many of his priorities. Flathead County needs to capitalize on the strengths it already has, such as high-quality health care and its spectacular environment, he said.

“I’m not one to say, ‘Government’s here to solve your problems, let us do it,’ but I’m certainly willing to work with business leaders to try and facilitate the advantages that we already have,” Brenneman said.

Environmental qualities and conscientious planning throughout the valley both have an economic impact on Flathead County, Brenneman said. During a recent trip to Canada promoting the Flathead as a tourist destination for Canadians, which he paid for out of pocket, Brenneman learned that tourists largely come to the valley for the water and the view.

“If we wreck either one of those things, there are other places they can go,” Brenneman said.

He also learned the Flathead Valley could have a viable future as a medical destination for Canadians who don’t want to wait months for procedures in their own country.

Working the Alberta oil fields may also be a temporary option for out-of-work valley residents, Brenneman said, and he has spoken with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester about temporary work visas.

“We don’t want people to move there, but while we’re waiting for our economy to restart or to become a little more active, having another option might be the difference between losing your house,” Brenneman said.

Water quality is another major issue in the Flathead, and Brenneman believes solutions to future problems should begin at the local level. For example, he said most people he’s talked to agree that uniform streamside setbacks would not be effective in the valley.

Instead, a possible solution could be legislation that gives waterfront property owners a property tax reduction if they install a vegetative buffer on the edge of their land. The idea comes from loggers, Brenneman said, and it would be a self-policing effort.

“A lot of us doing a little bit is a lot more beneficial than a few people who happen to choose to develop their property who have to do a lot,” Brenneman said.

As the commission’s sole Democrat, Brenneman believes the three-person board is well balanced. If a Republican were to be elected, Brenneman said some voters in the valley would be left out.

“If the commission is comprised all of people on one side or the other, then there’s a segment of the population that’s completely disenfranchised,” Brenneman said.

This feeling often gives rise to suggestions of a five-person commission or calls for redistricting, he added, and can be avoided if all views are represented.

“We actually have a balanced commission right now,” Brenneman said.

Pam Holmquist

Watch the above video Q and A with Pam Holmquist. Due to length, the video may take time to fully load.

As the Republican challenger for the District 2 seat, Holmquist believes she would be a better addition to the commission than the incumbent.

“My opponent has said that we have a good enough team, but I disagree with that,” Holmquist said.

A political newcomer from Evergreen, Holmquist said her 32 years as a business owner have given her insight into the biggest concern for Flathead Valley residents right now: jobs.

Holmquist disagrees, however, with the idea that local people should have to move to find a well-paying job. They should be able to stay with their families, she said, and not travel east of the mountains or north across the border to make a livable income.

Brenneman, she said, has waited too long to address the economic problems in the county.

“I won’t wait until the 12th hour to care about the local economy. I want to create jobs here; I don’t want to be sending our workforce off to Canada,” Holmquist said. “We need to bring jobs here in Flathead County.”

Her solution is to create a coalition of county commissioners, local mayors and legislators to represent the Flathead in Helena. She would also like to see a different business featured on the county website every week, and believes the Port Authority could help by providing discounted rates for businesses to fly in and check out the area.

Communication with the Flathead County planning and zoning director would also play a part in Holmquist’s plan for economic recovery. If a business or developer comes to the office with a plan that might bring jobs to the valley, Holmquist said she would like to know about it to provide whatever help she could.

She stressed that any push for new development projects would have to be balanced with private property rights, which Holmquist places high on her priority list. After chatting with valley residents about their concerns, she created a property owner’s bill of rights that she would like to see incorporated in the county’s growth policy.

Included on the list of requirements are fair and honest staff reports from the planning and zoning office; requirements for Flathead County to abide by all laws and constitutional requirements for open meetings and open government; and ensuring that property owners have the right to full use and benefit of their property as long as they don’t harm others.

Some of these might already be in the growth policy, Holmquist said, but she asserted that she would like to be part of the growth policy review to ensure these aspects are included in some capacity.

“I think most individuals and developers, they just want to know the requirements up front so there’s no surprises as they get into their project,” Holmquist said. “I think sometimes that hasn’t been going on.”

As a Republican, Holmquist said she believes in smaller government and less government spending. She stands by her assertion that the county budget has ballooned, noting it has increased from $49 million in 2004 to more than $80 million today.

She would like to shrink that number, regardless of whether the money being spent comes from grants.

“No matter how we get that money, it comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket,” Holmquist said.

Though she has looked at the budget, Holmquist said she would like to get in the commission seat and into the budget process before suggesting financial cuts.

Holmquist stressed the importance of water quality in Flathead County, but also noted water quantity will be an issue in the future. The county commission should be involved in the water compact discussions to “protect our water rights against the government and the tribes,” she said.

There is also a need for a county sewage treatment plant, especially for areas like Evergreen, she said, and the current economic climate would provide favorable labor and material rates if the county has money in the budget to build a new facility.

If she is elected, Holmquist is not worried about alienating the Democratic base in Flathead County.

“Building relationships with people – I’ve been doing that for 32 years and I hope to do that in the commissioner office,” Holmquist said. “I’m always open to listening to everyone. It’s like in my business; I’m sure there are Democrats and Republicans coming through my door, I’m not going play party politics.”

The general election is on Nov. 2. Absentee ballots are available until noon on Nov. 1.

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