City Council votes to implement annexation rule

After a four-and-a-half-hour emotionally charged meeting Tuesday the Miles City Council voted in favor of the utility rule, which states that unless property owners disconnect from their water and sewer service (which the Custer County Water and Sewer District has bought from the city and provides to its customers), they are consenting to annexation.

It will go into effect in 30 days. It is expected to take several studies and more than a year before any decision is made to annex and if so, where to annex.

Miles City Mayor John Hollowell said there are procedures they have to follow to move forward.

If annexation were to occur, the property owners would be given a notice and have 10 days to arrange to be disconnected, if they were going to protest the move. 

Hollowell and City Attorney Dan Rice said the property owners wouldn’t have to have the disconnect completed, but would have to be making arrangements with plumbers, etc., and have a plan in place to disconnect.

About 150 people attended the meeting at the Custer County District High School auditorium, and police officers were in attendance in case things got out of hand.

The vote was 6-2 with council members John Uden and Jeff Erlenbusch voting against the rule. Only one audience member out of about 150 in attendance spoke in favor of the utility rule.

City and county planner Dianna Broadie, who formerly worked for Miles City and still lives in the area, said the rule doesn’t mean the city has to annex, but if it does, a financial analysis needs to be done beforehand to find what the real cost is first so people aren’t reacting on their gut reactions. 

As the crowd spoke, numerous threats were made, including threats to sue the city, and threats against the mayor’s and council members’ businesses.

People suggested the mayor and council members’ businesses be boycotted, as well as other city businesses if the rule passed, and if annexed, to use the power of the election to remove people from the city offices. 

They also said if they are going to be paying more taxes if annexed into the city, they’ll have less money to spend locally so the city’s economic development will suffer.

Custer County Commissioner Keith Holmlund told council members he hoped they gave serious thought to their decision.

“There’s serious consequences for what you are going to do. I’m already seeing some division in the county people, and if you continue with this you’re going to see that same division between the governments, and you know that’s not good,” he said, recommending that the commissioners, water and sewer district board members, and council members sit down and work out the best deal possible.

“If you pass this, and I hope you don’t but if you do, there will be no reason for negotiations (with the district). The doors will be closed and once that happens …. nobody is going to win,” he said. The audience applauded.

He asked for a committee to be formed with two members from the city, the county, and the water and sewer district to discuss the rule.

District board members Jerry Backlund and Don Bundy both said if the city voted for the utility rule, “negotiations are over.”

Bundy said in the 1970s the city needed new water and sewer plants and could not afford them, so the district was formed to add customers to the services and raise revenue. The district provides and maintains those additional lines.

The city has stated that the utility rule was based on one Whitefish used, but Backlund said Whitefish owned those lines where Miles City doesn’t own the district lines.

Some of the concerns expressed were the following:

— Several people asked the city to do better “due diligence.” They felt there wasn’t transparency in the city’s actions and wanted more facts before a decision was made. 

— Many objected more to the process of using the utility rule instead of a vote of the effected residents to make their decisions, than the annexation issue itself. 

— They objected that they didn’t have any representation on the council so they didn’t have a say in the decision.

— They felt their taxes would go way up but they would not receive anything in returned.

— The police department is already stretched thin and there are many streets in the city not being taken care of and yet the city wants to extend its borders.

— Some residents moved to the county so their children can raise animals, like for 4-H, something which is not allowed in the city, . 

Hollowell said the city does allow chickens and horses and if property owners have other animals at the time of annexation, they — and later owners — can keep farm animals on that land as long as there isn’t a one-year period of not having any animals on it.

People called the utility rule and annexation “extortion,” “a money grab” and “a land grab,” and stated that residents would get no additional services for their money.

Jerry Michels, whose father developed the Michels Addition, said when the addition was being formed, his father asked the city for roads, and water and sewer service, but was told the city couldn’t afford to do that, so Jim Michels paid “well over $100,000, to provide those and if annexed, “I will expect you to pay me back,” Jerry Michels said.

After the council listened to the audience for more than two hours in the public hearing, it was time for the council members to speak, but they were often interrupted with angry outbursts and boos. 

Council member Dwayne Andrews said he has listened to the public input at four meetings and hoped they’d give him a chance to speak, which was met with many comments from the audience at once.

The rural residents have spoken out at a Feb. 27 Public Services Committee meeting, a Feb. 28 council meeting, a March 20 water and sewer district meeting and Tuesday’s council meeting.

He said he agreed with a lot of their reasons but he has difficulty thinking of them as living in the country when they can throw a rock and hit their neighbor. 

Andrews suggested forming a working group made up of one county commissioner, the mayor, two rural homeowners in the district, two city homeowners, two council members, two district board members, the city public utility director, the city planner and the county planner.

The two missions of the group would be:

— if annexation occurred, develop a five-year cushion. For example, if a property owner paid $500 in taxes to the county, which would then go to the city, gradually redirect those funds, so the first year the county would get $400 and city would get $100. The following year the county would get $300 and the city would get $200, and so forth, so the county could gradually adjust and possibly find another funding mechanism.  Wednesday morning Andrews said the method is used a lot in government and works well.

— to try to develop an action plan in lieu of annexation.

Wednesday morning Andrews said it may not be possible, but “if you don’t try, you’ll never figure it out.”

Many of the council members voiced support of the group. 

Uden told the crowd that he personally would like to see them in the city but he understands why they don’t want to be, so he voted against the rule.

Council members said city residents they spoke with were in favor of the rule. “My job is to vote for my constituents and I’m sorry about that,” Kathy Wilcox said.

Several audience members owned property in and outside the city limits, saying they also were the council’s constituents and are against it.

Rita Fischer thanked the mayor and council for listening and said they weren’t trying to “bash you” but reminded them that “your decision is going to hurt us. … You are going to take away our rights.”

The city handed out folders with information before the meeting started and planner Dawn Colton went over the information towards the end. She tried to show what taxes they would pay regardless if they are in the city or not. She said taxes for maintenance districts and lighting districts could not be decided until a decision was made as to what land would be annexed and what needs were there.  Some attendees said it was one-sided information.

Holmlund said maybe this is how governments do business elsewhere, “but we sure as h—- don’t treat people in Miles City like this.”

At 11:30 p.m. a council member called for questions, which ends the debate, and the audience objected, saying the council wasn’t listening to them.

The crowd had dwindled some by the time the vote was taken, but there were still a number of people in the audience.