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Paddy Trusler reflects on 34-year career with Lake County

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“I got my masters and Ph.D. from the school of hard knocks, the Lake County government,” County Commissioner Paddy Trusler said in his remarks about the state of Lake County during the Polson Chamber of Commerce on Dec. 5.

“That’s true, too,” he agreed during an interview later.

Although he received his “advanced degrees” working for Lake County, Trusler grew up and attended school in Polson. He graduated from Washington State with a microbiology degree and endorsements in environmental quality and sewage disposal.

Before moving back to Polson, he served as an environmental engineer for the Montana State Board of Health, the precursor of the Department of Environmental Quality.

Trusler worked for Lake County for 34 years, ending his career with two terms (12 years) as a county commissioner.

“What you learn in college, and what you find out in life are normally somewhat different,” Trusler said, “But my God, things have changed in 34 years,” Trusler said.

He remembers when he started his working life, everything was done on NCR paper, which produces copies without carbon paper, and now computers are used almost exclusively.

He said, “The efficiency of providing services to the public has improved,” he said. “Sometimes I think it’s a little too fast. Sometimes I don’t think we think through all the pros and cons and consequences of the actions.”

A way Lake County has changed for the better has been replacing the six open burning dumps present when Trusler began work. People either illicitly dumped their trash or took it to the dump, where it was burned and pushed up in piles.

“We’ve replaced every one of those old burning dumps with a container site,” he said.

The container sites are user-friendly, Trusler explained, and illicit dumping has become less and less frequent.

Other improvements are methods of dealing with sewage.

“Let’s just say, it was common in the early ‘70s to discharge wastewater into ’57 Buicks rather than into subsurface drain fields,” Trusler said, explaining that people buried old car bodies and dumped their sewage into them.

“Ronan dumped into Crow Creek,” he said, noting that all the towns had a receiving body of water where they dumped wastewater.

As an example, Trusler said Arlee’s “solution to pollution was dilution” in 1973, since the town had a shallow aquifer with gravelly soil. Dilution had to change so residents wouldn’t have the idea that a little contamination was okay. Through citizen involvement and persistence, he said there’s a new wastewater system in Arlee, operational for eight or nine years.

“...What I’m trying to point out is effective compliance isn’t through regulation, it’s through understanding,” Trusler said. “It’s a mindset. The Lake County public embraced the idea to be part of the solution instead of the problem.”

His motto has been people embrace what they help to create.

“There’s a difference between buy-in and ownership. It all boils down to, in my mind, if we are going to continue to move forward in a non-confrontational way, people need to partner in it. Things should happen as a result of partnership, discussion and implementation. That’s the ownership part,” Trusler explained.

As well as public service, he’s also been involved in Polson Dollars for Scholars. The program is the “brainchild of Pat DeVries,” Polson’s mayor and a local businessperson. The scholarship program has provided $109,000 scholarships to 124 kids in 10 years.

“I really am proud of how Polson (businesses and individuals) have rallied around Dollars for Scholars,” Trusler said.

When asked about Lake County as a leader in environmental health, Trusler said he wants to believe that. Not only are county staffers leading in environmental issues, but also leaders in other areas, such as land use.

Lake County has also instituted recycling bins, with test sites in Polson, Pablo and Ronan, and plans to include the rest of the county.

“When we closed our landfill and developed the transfer station, we incurred costs to transport garbage to Missoula,” Trusler said, so it was a no-brainer to reduce the amount transferred by recycling.

“Frankly,” he said, “We are just in the infancy of the recycling effort.”

At the Chamber of Commerce luncheon, Trusler said he was afraid of the 2013 legislature. He amended that to say that he’s afraid of all legislatures. One of their bullet points is always, “We are going to reduce property tax.”

“How are you going to reduce property taxes and still provide services?” Trusler asked.

Of a Lake County resident’s total tax bill paid, only 20 percent comes back to local government to provide services, he said, since 60 percent goes to schools and 20 percent goes to the State of Montana.

“What I really believe the legislature should be touting is tax reform,” Trusler said “in the way that all of our taxes are levied and then distributed back.”

The Montana 2013 legislative session is fortunate because they are going in with approximately $400 million excess, so there is not need “to balance the budget on the backs of local government,” Trusler explained. With the fiscal cliff looming, pass-through dollars from the federal government to the State of Montana are uncertain.

One of the changes he’s seen during his tenure is a change in county residents’ attitude.

Change always comes with a lot apprehension, Trusler said, and sometimes with a lot of antagonism.

For instance, when people have always dumped their trash in a 55-gallon barrel and then burned it, change may be harder to facilitate, so his advice is to organize the program so it’s easy to comply.

“A motto I’ve had — make regulations so it’s easy to comply, and you can expect compliance,” Trusler explained.

Two upcoming projects in Lake County that excite Trusler are the investigation into collaboration with the City of Polson on a bike path connecting the current Skyline path with U.S. Highway 93 via Caffrey Road. Another bike path being contemplated is one coming from Kerr Dam Road up Grenier Lane along 17th Avenue and connecting to Skyline Drive.

The path will provide connectivity and options to go “all over the place,” Trusler said.

“It’s a proven fact that walking paths provide for a healthy community and really, quite frankly, increased property values in a community and, to some extent, can be beneficial in attracting businesses,” he added.

In his personal life, Trusler has many opportunities for his post-commissioner years. He’s considering volunteer positions, such as a medi-car drive, or in the private sector.

“One of my passions is the healthcare trust in which the county is involved. It’s important that Lake County remain in the trust,” he said. He will also remain on the board of the child development center in Missoula.

Trusler said one of the best statements about what he’ll do now came from John Mercer, local attorney and former Speaker of the House.

Mercer said, “There is life after politics.”

“All I can say is I am leaving my position knowing that I worked hard and hopefully accomplished beneficial things for Lake County.

"I hope the attitude now is ‘onward and upward,’” Trusler said.

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