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Ronan City Council continues budget meetings

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RONAN — Ronan’s well-attended, heated, and more than three-hour-long Sept. 24 city council meeting featured discussions on everything from the city’s annual budget to supporting the Hate-Free Zone project.

The council heard a short presentation by Cathy Billie on the Hate-Free Zone project, which is gathering momentum around the valley. Started in 1996 by the Flathead Reservation Human Rights Coalition, the projects asks city councils, school districts and businesses to support a resolution seeking to create an inclusive community free from bias and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender. 

Billie said no local police department has a law or precedent protecting gay, lesbian, bi, questioning, or transgender individuals from abuses. 

“We all pay taxes, and we all have equal protection under the law,” Billie said. “As city council members and leaders, we feel that you should step up and support this resolution.”

Joining several local townships and school districts like St. Ignatius, Hot Springs and Polson, the Ronan City Council voted unanimously in support of the resolution.

Several updates on public works projects around the city including Ronan’s water improvement project, were also discussed before Mayor Kim Aippersbach said, “Alright, I think it’s time to discuss the elephant in the room.”

The elephant Aippersbach referred to was the possibility of eliminating Jennifer Rolfsness’ position as Ronan’s director of parks and recreation. The move has the potential to save Ronan $32,000 per year, and was submitted as an option within one week of every city employee receiving a pay increase. Pay increases ranged from 10-cents to upward of $1 per hour. 

It is worth noting that two years ago, city employees received a 30 cents per-hour cost-of-living pay increase. Last year, they only received 7 cents. Last year’s raises did not equate to 1 percent of any city employee’s gross income. The low raises given over the past few years were a contributing factor for the larger increase in this year’s budget. 

Having heard that Rolfsness’ position might be eliminated in an effort to save money, several local residents attended budget meetings over the past few weeks in support of Ronan’s city park and Rolfsness. 

Not a single community member spoke in support of eliminating Rolfsness’ position. Several commented on how beautiful the park has become under Rolfsness’ care and how hard she’s worked for the city and community. 

Public Works Director Dan Miller said he feels there is a general consensus that if Rolfsness is gone, the park will deteriorate.

“I will not let that happen,” Miller said. “It gets tough to reduce (work) force when times are rough, but times are rough and our revenue is down.” 

Miller stood by his recommendation to save money by reducing force and firing Rolfsness, stating that he was asked to find ways to save money, and this was one of the ways he found. 

“I was hired to get the taxpayers as much for their dollar as possible. That’s why I made the recommendation,” he said. “It isn’t anything personal between me and Jen.”

Rolfsness then stood and asked to be heard, as she had hardly spoken at the previous meetings. 

“I don’t just mow the park,” she said. “I do the safe routes to school programs; I do the walk to school programs; I work closely with the beautification committee; I’m in charge of the community service work when people come out of the courts; and I wrote the master plan for the park — there’s a lot more to my job than mowing and watering.”

Rolfsness went on to say that in the time she’s worked for the city of Ronan, she’s written and received $816,881 in grant funding for the city — and more than 65 percent of these funds were non-matching grants that did not require additional funds from the city. She also described the lengths to which she and the beautification committee had gone to to create a master plan for Ronan’s future that involved the pathways project, the U.S. Highway 93 reconstruction and the storm water sewer project. 

Finally, she expressed her displeasure that after the project was supported by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and Lake County, funded by grants and fundraisers, and designed by industry-leading engineers who’d donated their time to the cause, it seemed that Ronan’s city council would not support it. 

“I just wanted to be heard,” Rolfsness said. “If you think this is the right decision for the city, I can understand that, and maybe we need to more forward with an exit strategy.”

A heated but short-lived public comment period ensued, and before voices were raised, council member Roger Romero interjected.

“I would like to hear from the rest of the council,” he said. “I am not in favor of this, especially after giving raises less than two weeks ago.” 

Three other council members agreed, making the vote 4-3 in favor of keeping Rolfsness’ position. The budget has not yet passed. The council is expected to meet every Monday at 5 p.m. until a consensus has been reached.

Once outside city hall, Rolfsness was surrounded by smiling community members who voiced their pleasure at the decision, shook her hand and offered congratulations. 

In an interview two days later, Rolfsness said she was still fairly ambivalent about the situation but was grateful for the support she received. 

“I was angry, so I drove up to the park the other day,” Rolfsness said. “I was sitting in the park and thinking about what I was going to do, and I said, ‘You just need to breathe and realize that this is why you did it.’

“I sat and watched the kids rollerblading, the kids on the playground, the people from the phone company who go down to have their lunch there, the kids with their parents and the same older folks who walk through (the park) every single day. That’s why I did it.”


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