Monday, December 17, 2007

VALIER, MONTANA: Answers to a Questionnaire

The town has paid an "Environmental and Technical Assistance" company to administer a questionnaire to everyone in town. I'm posting my answers. You can probably imply the questions.

This questionnaire presents me with a problem: there is no way I can really say what I think without being identified. I don’t mind being identified except that this will cause some people to immediately be opposed or in favor of what I say -- simply because it comes from me. I think I’ll just go with it.

I have not forgotten that when I started attending town meetings and tried to say something about a matter on which I had a little expertise (having worked for both the City of Portland and Multnomah County), I was told by Nina Stoddard (who was newly elected) that my ideas were not welcome and I could just butt out. At that point checkbook politics ruled. Of course, then the checkbook moved on. I’m still here.

Valier is a good place to live, but my reason for thinking so is probably nothing like the reasons of other people. I like it because it is much like my happy past in Browning in the Sixties. I like the cheap funky little house I live in. I like the people. I don’t mind wind. I get too cold in winter. This house was “weatherized” by some previous program that did a truly lousy job, using asbestos-contaminated vermiculite and poor workmanship.

I came in Spring 1999. I am the head of the household (which otherwise consists of two fat cats) and am 68, retired and living on Social Security and a bit of pension. I am right AT federal poverty level, a little over $12,000 a year. I bought this house outright -- it is paid for. I took a slightly early and underpaid retirement so that I could write, which I do. I have two master’s degrees, one of which is a Master of Divinity. I was in the Unitarian Universalist ministry for a decade. I lived in Browning and Heart Butte for a total of about fifteen years.

5. How could I possibly even know what the educational program is in Valier? I’ve never seen their curriculum. I substituted a couple of times. My impression is that there is much emphasis on athletics and discipline, which is typical for Montana, and that this is fine with the parents. I’ve never seen test scores. I don’t know who goes on to vocational training or college.

6. Likewise, I have no statistics about how many people are on WIC, how many are receiving commodities, how many are on welfare or disability or other assistance. Neither do I have any idea about norms in other communities or what the experts consider adequate. This information might be surprising since there is still enough old-fashioned pride here to encourage people to keep quiet. At the same time there are people here who have had low-pay jobs all their lives -- they must be living on the bare minimum. They are the people who provided services for many years.

7 and 8. What do you mean “more” convalescent/nursing homes? There are none now. What is enough? There are such places -- they just aren’t here. What are the criteria for “assisted living facilities?” What are the trade-offs for funding them instead of visiting nurses and helpers? I thought the cutting edge was to keep people in their homes with help.

9. The only problem I see with the Valier Clinic is that it is at the mercy of the Marias Care Center. Since I was a ward clerk there for five months, I have a strong sense of what is wrong with THEM, but this is about Valier. The main problem is the constant turnover of physicians, which is not rooted in Valier. How come you don’t ask about counseling services? Why don’t you ask about diabetes support? We have an epidemic of Diabetes 2 in this town and the little clinic is not prepared to respond. It’s great that we have a massage therapist who is prepared to address feet.

10. What is “adequate” services for senior citizens? The lunch service seems to be underattended at times but overall my impression is that it’s a major success. I was glad for the blood pressure checks, but probably ought to have been advised to seek medical attention when it got above 140. For the vigorous ones who are anxious to direct everyone from the town employees to the cooks just how to run their lives, there probably needs to be more constructive things to do. Bingo or knitting or something. For the ones who are at home, maybe housebound -- I don’t know who they are, what they think about privacy or visits. A questionnaire to everyone is hardly a good way to find out. I don’t know how many “Meals on Wheels” go out.

11. What do you mean, “sufficient financial services?” Do you mean for running a ranch? Do you mean can I get my pension check cashed there without having an account? (No.) The ATM took a lot of pressure off me in terms of convenience. Wells Fargo is an oppressive bank corporation -- they were even in Portland, OR, when I had to deal with them as Bureau of Buildings cashier. It’s not the fault of the local people.

12. I doubt that many people in this town are crying out for business development and management assistance! Reliable help might be more of a need. We need a plumber, an electrician. I really miss the handyman.

13. Yup. But I was deceived about the town infrastructure. I was told the water came from the lake and was unlimited with no treatment problems, that the sewers were new and the treatment settling ponds were problem-free, etc. The cost of infrastructure has doubled since I moved in. (Do I own my house.)

14. I have no idea what low-income housing there is in Valier. I hear citizens object to Section 8. I think that in this community “low income” is code for Indian and that there is still resistance to Indians unless they are high income and can buy a house. The only entity that wants Indians is the school, because they bring in federal money.

15. The constraints on water service are geological, but also the town council is far too inclined to cross their fingers instead of taking action. A “grant” is the answer to everything. I would set the priority of cleaning and properly operating the wells far above the importance of new street signs which cost roughly the same as cleaning the wells. There is far too much tendency to rely on local memory rather than experts or real research. We still have individuals who abuse water. This town is hooked on lawns, though the growing consensus is that they should be re-thought by going to xeriscaping. Green grass means respectability and prosperity in this part of the world, but we are using expensively treated well water to pour on a bunch of grass where it mostly evaporates. We went for being a “Tree City USA” knowing that there would not be enough water to keep them alive. The bottom line is that people here have not been willing to face the consequences of global warming -- it’s not hard to understand why that is terrifying for an economy dependent on irrigation.

16. Yes. I have no idea how I would pay for a water meter, but the inequities are pretty major.

17. Of course. (Is Source Water Protection important?)

18. So far so good. I watched carefully when the lining was installed past my house. (Sewers)

19. I don’t mind dirt roads. I don’t mind dust and potholes. I know I’m the exception.

20. I’d say we were above average when it comes to any kind of fire/rescue/EMT/police service. I’m especially impressed by the care they take with teenagers.

21. How do we know? I see unmarked helicopters coming in here -- who are they? Homeland security? Border patrol? Air Force? How many of these people are living here now? I didn’t hear the little cropduster bumblebee this summer. Maybe people can’t afford crop dusting anymore.

22. Seems okay to me, but I’m not disabled.

23. I think our representatives here are entirely too much enthralled by grants, programs, state and federal entities and so on. Velda said at a recent meeting that she was applying for things without any council consultation because she “didn’t think we’d get them.” I don’t think they are taking the “matching” part of matching grants seriously enough or doing enough pencil work to figure out what these things mean to low-income individuals. It’s just too exciting to be throwing levers and going to conferences.

24. A town is much more than roads. I think streets have become a kind of obsession for some people and they are crowding out more important services. Water is far more important, for instance.

Where is a question about laundromats? I don’t have a washing machine and must drive thirty miles to the nearest laundromat.

Where is the question about the proposed county bus link to Valier? I think this is vital as gas costs more and more, esp. for older folks who don’t drive anymore.

Where is the question about television broadcast? What are we doing to do about the coming switch to digital, the end of analog? The assumption seems to be that everyone will either be on satellite or have access through a computer, but is this valid for older people with limited funds? And yet, many of the housebound are dependent on watching television to be “company” through the day.

Where’s the question about wireless broadband throughout the town? This is a service for businesses and individuals that would be a major contribution. For that matter, what about cell phones? You don’t ask any questions about it.

You didn’t ask, but one of Valier’s real strengths is the two restaurants, the Panther and the Lighthouse. Both are excellent.

Where is the question about whether Pondera County is supporting Valier?

I can’t believe we are paying a business to administer a questionnaire as superficial and unhelpful as this one. Why didn’t we have an old-fashioned meeting with felt marker and easel to thrash out some of these issues? This sort of plowing over the surface is bound to create hard feelings and resistance.

In fact, I think this is one thing that needs to be addressed: the constant harassing of anyone who is brave enough to serve the town. Intemperate people scold the town clerk, constantly bad-mouth town employees, and second guess everything that happens. They cannot be satisfied and keep a constant stink rising from local coffee klatches. If this were a church, it would be worth addressing from the pulpit and making a lot of house calls. We can’t hope to have happy, high-functioning people on our town council if we kick them all the time.

I realize we are all rather terrified. Aside from the climate, we’re in the midst of a major political sea-change and don’t know what that will mean to our future. When it comes to environmental issues, the predictions tend to be apocalyptic. I think this is why there is a tendency to think that a person can take refuge in a small remote town like Valier. But it is NOT remote. And it is not just a town -- we are deeply connected to the farmers and ranchers around us, to the Blackfeet tribe, to the Rocky Mountains, to the world grain economy, to the price of gas.

Ask me if I’m glad the missile silo over the hill has been closed down. I am. But IS it?

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