Montana Editorial Roundup
Bozeman Daily Chronicle, June 25, on housing shortage’s link to the worker shortage:
If there’s a downside to a booming economy, it’s full employment. When essentially everyone who wants a job has one, businesses can go wanting for the workers they need to thrive and expand. That’s the situation here in the Gallatin Valley. From fast food restaurants to high-tech firms, most businesses are having trouble filling all their positions.
A Chronicle report published June 16, spelled out this problem and how the lack of affordable housing is exacerbating things. What was particularly noteworthy was how the local tech sector is finding it difficult to find qualified workers, in part because out-of-state, big-city tech companies are hiring them away and allowing them to work remotely from here in southwest Montana. The big-city firms can pay more and that makes the choice easy for these workers. More money means being able to afford housing in Bozeman’s notoriously expensive real estate and rental market.
Just a few days later, the Chronicle reported that Big Sky School District was seeking county approval to build a pair of triplexes for teacher housing. Bozeman’s housing affordability issues pale in comparison to those in Big Sky. Getting people to move there on teachers’ salaries is nigh onto impossible. So the school district plans to build the triplexes and offer them to teachers priced at 30% of their salaries.
Perhaps Bozeman employers should consider something similar. Smaller tech firms may not have the resources to build housing for prospective employees. But many are already banded together over shared interests through the Montana High Tech Business Alliance. Working together, perhaps tech firms could find a way to make affordable housing available to hirees.
The community’s largest employers, Montana State University, Bozeman Health and the Bozeman School District have greater resources. They may be able to provide affordable housing options for new employees on their own.
What we can say is this: A lack of affordable housing is a big part of the shortage of qualified workers locally. As the shortage continues — or even worsens — housing may have to become part of the compensation package for newcomers to the area.
Billings Gazette, June 24, on methamphetamine’s toll on Yellowstone County resources:
The meth epidemic is taking an increasing toll on Yellowstone County taxpayers. At annual budget hearings that began last week, the County Commission heard from public safety, court and health care leaders about the impact meth is having on their limited staff.
At any given time, the Yellowstone County jail has about 500 inmates. There are often 65-70 prisoners in units that used to hold 40, Sheriff Mike Linder told the commission. The crowding pushes up personnel costs. For safety, such crowded units will have two detention officers, instead of one.
More jail staff
The detention staff has had several vacancies, so officers have been required to pull double shifts every week, working 16 hours straight in the jail. That’s hard on employees and overtime is costly for the county. Linder said he expects to have five vacancies filled soon and requested four additional detention officers in the budget for fiscal 2020.
The jail stays full as the number of criminal cases filed has grown year after year, propelled largely by drug offenses and drug-related crimes. Most of the jail inmates are awaiting action on felony cases. Nonviolent misdemeanor offenders don’t even go to jail. Judges can order them to work off sentences with supervised community service.
Justice Court’s initiative to ease jail crowding while maintaining public safety has screened misdemeanor defendants to determine who can be safely released pending trial. Justice of the Peace David Carter told commissioners that screened and monitored defendants were more likely to show up for their court dates, thus shortening the time it takes to dispose of the case. On the other hand, defendants who fail to appear slow down the court process and generate additional expense of warrants, arrests and being jailed again.
“Meth continues to take a toll and plays a major role in the Yellowstone County jail population,” Carter said. “There has been an increase in failure to appear in Justice Court and District Court. Then there is additional cost to track them down. Monitoring is the best use of county money. The focus should be on jail overcrowding and community safety.”
County Attorney Scott Twito asked the commission to approve hiring of one additional deputy county attorney as quickly as possible. He said that deputy will be added to the criminal prosecution division.
The epidemic of drug abuse continues to hurt children. Twito said his office has had to hire temporary staff to handle the large volume of child abuse and neglect cases.
900 foster kids
CASA of Yellowstone County, which provides trained volunteers to advocate for foster kids, reported last week that 900 Yellowstone County children are in the foster system, but only 380 have a court appointed special advocate because the number of neglected kids far exceeds the number of volunteers.
Last year, parental abuse of drugs was a factor in 80% of Yellowstone County child abuse and neglect cases, according to data compiled by the county attorney’s office. Meth was the primary drug of abuse in four out of five cases.
Yellowstone County has provided an annual grant to Yellowstone CASA and helps fund several local nonprofit organizations to provide services for people with addictions and serious mental illnesses. Those agreements with Rimrock, Alternatives Inc., the Mental Health Center and the Community Crisis Center help people overcome the drug problems that fuel child neglect, fill our jail and clog our courts.
As county commissioners finalize the budget this summer, drug abuse will be a major expense. That’s why Yellowstone County must keep investing in preventive services, such as addiction treatment and mental health care. That’s why the county must support services for vulnerable children and ensure that the sheriff, courts and county attorney have sufficient resources. Meth is a tough adversary; we must keep fighting.
Daily Inter Lake, June 23, on limiting the amount of time children are in front of screens:
From cellphones to computers and tablets to TVs, we’re surrounded by screens these days. There’s no escaping technology, but it was startling to hear local psychiatrist Joe Boyle say that a decade from now we may look back at technology — especially in the education system — like they did with the tobacco industry after realizing the harmful effects of smoking well after the fact.
Inter Lake reporter Kianna Gardner took an in-depth look in last Sunday’s edition about how schools are addressing the question: How much is too much screen time?
While the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends screen time be limited to one hour per day for kids ages 2 to 5, there is no specific time recommendation for children 5 and up. Other research, however, suggests screen time be limited to two to three hours per day for older children. The bottom line is that the monitoring of screen time for kids falls squarely on the shoulders of parents and teachers.
The assertions made by Boyle and youth therapist Charley Jones, both of The Newman Center in Kalispell, which specializes in behavioral health, were startling.
“Technology is kind of taking away the critical thinking process when solving problems, so doing basic things like calculating distances or measuring things can create an anxious state.”
That anxiety, brought on by too much screen time, can lead to mood and sleep dysfunction, inability to control emotions and a lack of social development.
It’s reassuring to hear that many schools in the Flathead are taking steps to address the screen-time issue and want to collaborate with parents in controlling the amount of time kids are glued to their devices. While technology certainly has its benefits, the key lies in teaching children to use it responsibly.
Those who have studied the effects of screen time note that schools need to introduce technology strictly as a means for enhancing education, not as a way to simply keep up with technological advances. They stress “digital citizenship,” which teaches students how to responsibly and appropriately use social media and other online platforms.
We encourage further collaboration between schools and parents in monitoring and refraining from screen time. Online technology is addictive; one only need look around to see the numbers of people, young and old, glued to their cellphones anymore.
The stakes are high if we don’t regulate screen time. With online technology shaping Generation Z — those between the ages of 3 and 25 — “brains are being wired a little differently,” Jones pointed out. Time is of the essence for every parent and every school to consider the consequences if protective measures aren’t put in place.