Uncommon Ground

Rural Life

The henchmen running Helena are making life much more expensive for working locals

By Mike Jopek

“What’d you surveying?” I asked the young men wearing orange vests. “Just some easements,” one hollered back over the wire fence. Overhead the cranes were periodically calling as the prehistoric-looking birds flew far above heading away from the marsh. It was a wet, chilly spring morning on the farm.

Earlier, as I walked toward the hoop house to work soil, a flock of hundreds, possibly thousands of small, noisy finch-sized birds were swirling, flowing in the air far over the fruit trees, then reforming, shrinking, expanding, and zipping away toward Blanchard Lake.

We’ve walked the area for decades. Spent our adult lives a part of rural Montana. Today our hometown feels a lot less rural than just a few years prior. A lot has changed in short order. I know you see and feel it.

Rural Montanans are good hardworking people trying to do right by our families and community. We love freedom, our rights, our state, and way of life.

Weirdly the henchmen running Helena are making life much more expensive for working locals. State property taxes, insurance, rent, and housing is suddenly all through-the-roof expensive. In Helena, lawmakers lost focus and try to politically remake rural Montana into something we are not.

We’re a fiercely independent, loyal people. We know our way around the land. Hunt, fish and recreate. We’ve felt struggle. Know compassion. Don’t care for expensive. Can still drive a stick, know how to double clutch, and tell the difference between drive and reverse.

All across rural Montana, healthcare services have closed, are closing, or lack state support. People travel far to access healthcare in the Flathead. Just ask your provider how long their patients travel.

The simple reason homeowner property taxes increased so radically is because state lawmakers failed to equalize the $60 billion worth of existing home value changes from the last two-year reappraisal. The state revenue department gave lawmakers the tax rate numbers to neutralize increases as required by law. State lawmakers let massive tax increases hit homeowners and renters.

State lawmakers put local public school levies in danger by ignoring rural values and overtaxing homes. We love our public schools, think our teachers are great. Public education is vital to rural Montanans. We deserve public infrastructure like schools, hospitals, bridges and broadband.

More rural than the Flathead, homeowners in counties like Sweet Grass, Deer Lodge, Judith Basin, Granite, Madison, Glacier, and Meagher experienced 30 to 40 percent state property tax increases.

Rural Montana has seen enough extreme Helena. We prefer checks and balances, accountability. Go ahead and run one branch of government. But not three.

Stop trying to make us into something we’re not. We’ll make our own healthcare decisions and talk to our doctors. Keep your government noses away from women’s rights, our freedoms. Overworked and overwhelmed, workers feel underpaid and underappreciated.

Rural citizens worked hard to keep our air and water clean. Over 50 years ago, as our Constitution was written to protect privacy and our environment, Montana was downright rural.

Our small hometown underwent plenty of change, much good. It’s odd to say small given how big, how wealthy, how downright expensive the North Valley became for workers over a few years. Yet we remain small, as hometowns, by numbers of voters. I can’t quantify visitors more than just lots, most all the time.

We drove over to see Rod, the smoke jumping, apple tree grafter. He’s in hospice. His time unknown. Talk focused on fruit trees, root stock, and planting. A fifth-generation local entered. His family had seen real change. I was but a first-generation farmer, my grandad a butcher, my dad a merchant marine, a welder.

We listened, nodded, made plans to return. Friends are good, important, no matter how you live. Outside, on Rod’s fruit trees, songbirds sang, grateful to be outdoors in rural Montana.