Why can’t poor people be rich like us?

By 
J.P. Plutt
Wednesday, December 21, 2022

The City of Dillon recently revised what is called the “Nuisance Ordinance” and there wasn’t a single member of the Dillon City Council who had the “common sense” to take a stand and say this is a bad idea. The vote was unanimous on what should be renamed the “Out of Touch With Reality” Ordinance. The recently-passed ordinance essentially turns private property owners in Dillon into members of a big Homeowners Association controlled by city officials, armed with the ability to levy fines of $500 a day on property owners if they don’t like the way the owner keeps their property.

In Dillon Tribune reporter M.P. Regan’s story of the council’s actions regarding the ordinance on page 1 of this edition, Dillon City Attorney Sky Jones assures our readers that when applying the ordinance to practical situations, common sense will prevail. I’ve sat down and chatted with Jones and I believe he is committed to what he is saying and believes that somehow he can bring sanity to city government.

Pardon my skepticism. The last city attorney quit after 10 months. When Jones is gone, who will try to monitor the use or abuse of this ordinance? I’ve been at the Tribune over 30 years and city government has proven time and again that it can be dysfunctional and vindictive. An acting mayor used the parking ordinance to harass a former mayor and it would be casually discussed during council meetings.

In this instance with the Nuisance Ordinance it seems that parts of it were included for the express purpose of targeting a political enemy. The ordinance defines public view as “any area visible from a point up to six (6) feet above the surface of the center of the center of a public roadway or right-of-way.” If you don’t know, a right-of-way is the alley, meaning officials can peak into your back yard and find violations.

Several months ago we ran a story about a Dillon businessman alleging that a council person whom he had run against for the council position was repeatedly driving down the alley past his business. He sells and repairs appliances. This revised ordinance includes a specific reference to household appliances. Selective enforcement anyone?

Five Montana communities worked with developers to help bring affordable housing to those areas with the help of $31 million in federal housing tax credits recently awarded to help develop or preserve affordable housing in Butte, Crow Agency, Great Falls, Libby and Missoula. The tax credits allow developers to borrow less construction money and pass the savings on through lower rents. The Montana Department of Commerce announced the Board of Housing news on Nov. 21.

Those affordable housing projects are targeted at seniors, families and individuals. Those types of properties are needed in Dillon. According to the Montana Department of Commerce and data gathered through the Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund, Beaverhead County is designated a high-poverty county according to U.S. Census Bureau Statistics for 2020, the most current year statistics are available.

According to that study, the percentage of Beaverhead County residents living in poverty is 13.3%. That is a rate greater than the average poverty rate in all Montana counties of 12.4%, and greater by even a larger margin of the U.S. average poverty rate in 2020 of 11.9%.

With the high cost of housing in Beaverhead County in recent years and young families paying exorbitant prices to begin their journey on the road to their version of the American Dream, it is not just the lowest poverty-level income people suffering economically as the country slogs through times of inflation and high energy prices, but middle income families struggling to improve their lives.

You don’t need a graph or survey to get a feel for the pain these folks are going through, and the sleepless nights they surely have night after night as they grapple with the decision of sending their children to daycare or making a house payment. Should we pay the power bill or buy some groceries?

It is not uncommon for one or both partners to work two jobs, or a full-time and a part-time job, and then try to live a regular life by going to little league baseball and other activities the family is involved in. Hey, these people might be a little too tired to mow their lawn, let alone attain Home and Garden standards.

For most folks, outside a home a vehicle may be the biggestticket item they buy in their lifetime. If they have a problem with the vehicle they are not going to have it towed to a junkyard. They are going to put it in the backyard and fix it at some later date when they can afford it, to recoup that major investment. While it sits in their backyard, why would they license it? That future father-son project is in jeopardy because the city would like it removed to a wrecking yard.

There are shielding options for property owners, including natural barriers. I know a property owner who, if he would have known, would have planted a shielding barrier at his house some 20 years ago, but it would have been weird. He was only six at the time and the people who owned the house then might not have liked what was going on.

Imagine a homeowner who works two jobs to keep his family in their house. With very little free time, he goes out a couple weekends a year and cuts firewood to help deal with the power bill. He dumps the blocks in a big pile in his backyard and uses the wood as he needs it in the winter. The ordinance doesn’t like piles of wood. The homeowners dad and grandpa told him many times when he was young, “Go out to the wood pile and get some firewood.” The ordinance says such material must not be dumped or piled but neatly stacked. Our homeowner is too tired to neatly stack the wood.

According to the ordinance, the intent is to “regulate, control and prohibit conditions that contribute to community decay..., so as to improve property values and increase community awareness of each individual’s responsibility and obligations a good citizens and good neighbors.”

Dillon is filled with good neighbors and citizens. You can’t regulate or control that, it is a function of being the people we are. Proud Montanans living in Dillon. There are folks who do not define these ideas as others do. It is their right as Americans to live the way they want to and take care of their property as they see fit. The previous Nuisance Ordinance and other laws regarding health and community welfare are on the books to deal with matters when they go to the extreme. There is no need for the city to empower themselves to regulate and determine for a citizen what is acceptable on their own property, and to come packing the hammer of a $500-a-day fine if you don’t do what I say.

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