Sunday, March 15, 2009

What I've been working on...

Since the explosion and fire in Bozeman a week and a half ago, I've been working on getting unemployment benefits expedited for workers of the businesses ruined in the disaster. Employees cannot present the usual documents required to file for benefits; those records were lost. W-2s, hourly wage statements, length of employment, etc. were on computers or bookkeepers' ledgers, so those requirements will be waived. For employees who weren't full-time and therefore not eligible for unemployment benefits, we're trying to find ways to pay some benefit. First Security Bank in Bozeman opened an account days after the blast and fire for some relief for those workers, and I've been working on some kind of unemployment benefits for them.

I've been in contact with the Montana Historical Society in Helena with questions on salvaging building materials for use in reconstruction. There's concern that, even if materials appear intact, they may not be structurally sound. For instance, there was a lot of brickwork in the buildings in the blast, and those bricks were blown into the street, brick walls toppled onto the site, and everything coated in dust that we're not sure doesn't have some environmental contaminant in it. If you drop a brick, then pick it up, it might look okay, but hairline fractures inside may not be detected. I love our historic downtown Bozeman and I know all our citizens, business owners, and visitors do, too. We'll work extra hard to keep the character the same or better, but using the actual materials that were in the blast may not be possible. Everything will help in getting the site back in shape: historic photos, recent photos, and indeed, some of the building materials may be usable. There are many people dedicated to re-establishing the site in our lovely downtown.

I've been trying to help to get Small Business Administration loans established for downtown businesses affected directly or indirectly by the event. For those businesses that need low-interest, relaxed term loans for demolition, site clearing, and rebuilding their businesses, these loans could help. For businesses with losses from fewer patrons, they can apply, too, showing that sales and traffic is down compared with the same period the year prior. Usually, SBA loans need a moderate number of businesses to start, and that pool may be relaxed to as few as three or five businesses in this case, which is great news! More than those initial three could participate, of course, but the relaxed requirement can help Bozeman businesses immediately. The discussions about the SBA loans began the day after the event, and should be established soon.

Just two days after the blast, I wondered about the tax increment financing (TIF) district downtown and the impact of the property values on the TIF district. I spoke with Chris Naumann, the executive director of the Downtown Business Association, and Anna Rosenberry, Finance Officer for the City of Bozeman, who drafted suggested language for a change in our laws not to severely impact the city through lowered valuation in the TIF. I spoke with the chief legal legislative counsel in the capitol and introduced legislation within a day to resolve the problem. Basically, the bill will add language in code to recognize that in the event of a disaster, and the subsequent devaluing of properties afterward, the base taxable value of the TIF will not suffer a drop. The devaluing of properties after a disaster is important, so that property owners don't pay the full property taxes on properties that no longer hold that value--that's fair. But the impact to the entire TIF district, which, in this case, is the Bozeman downtown district, is devastating. My bill will fix this discrepancy so that the district as a whole doesn't take the hit.

I've also been working just as hard to pass legislation. I'm sponsoring a cancer drug donation bill that received a great hearing Friday. (My technology TIF district bill did not receive as nice a reception Friday, unfortunately.) Next Friday, two more of my bills will be considered by the Senate, and I hope the newly-introduced TIF bill will be heard in my House Taxation committee soon.

Please know I'm completely dedicated to my city and to my state, and to everyone in Montana. We're all rallying. I just wanted to give you an update from my desk. --JP

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