Butte-Silver Bow’s top official has decided not to reappoint former Montana economic development chief Evan Barrett to the board that oversees the county’s industrial taxing district and business park.
Barrett played a key role in crafting the 1989 law that authorized special taxing districts for industrial areas in Montana and has served the past year-and-a-half on Butte’s Tax Increment Finance Industrial District (TIFID) Board.
Dave Palmer, the county’s chief executive, said Wednesday that his primary reason for the move was a Dec. 13 council meeting in which Barrett harshly criticized him for not naming a commissioner to secret negotiations on cleanup of the Butte Hill.
Palmer said he had decided to name Commissioner Dan Olsen to the environmental “consent decree” talks prior to Barrett’s public comments, but regardless, he said, the criticisms during the meeting went too far and too long.
“I think it’s a two-way street,” Palmer said. “When the chief executive has authority to appoint board members, he has to have respect of the board members and I don’t feel he had that after that little episode.”
When told about the reasoning early Wednesday night, Barrett said Superfund and TIFID were completely separate matters.
“If he wants to punish me for speaking out on the Superfund issue by not having me serve where I am of immense value, I guess that’s his choice,” Barrett said.
Commissioners concurred later Wednesday night with Palmer's new appointment of Andy Durkin, an accountant who works for NorthWestern Energy, to the TIFID Board. He also reappointed Todd Johnson to the board.
Barrett, during a public comment period at the Dec. 13 meeting, said he had urged Palmer to put a commissioner in the years-long talks because they were now moving quickly. But nothing had been done, he said, and he was suspicious “that we’re being stalled out” and nobody was addressing the issue.
Barrett spoke for several minutes and noted that Palmer himself was a commissioner in the consent-decree talks before he became chief executive. But after that, Barrett said, "suddenly it became not a good idea and we don't know why."
Barrett, through a written statement earlier Wednesday, noted Palmer’s authority to not reappoint him to the board but said, “I personally don’t think it is a good decision for Butte.”
As a board member, he said he brought “more than 25 years of economic development knowledge, experience and connections to help maximize the economic potential of that important industrial area of Butte.”
“The TIFID law is complex and the practice of creating economic development within that law is challenging,” the statement said. “I believe that as a board member I have made a positive difference in helping Butte to meet that challenge over the last year and a half.”
He said he appreciated being appointed to the board by former Chief Executive Matt Vincent and was sorry he would no longer serve with “other fine members" of the board who were “very qualified and dedicated to the betterment of Butte.”
“I hope that Mr. Palmer will keep them in place for the good of Butte,” he wrote.
Barrett said he only received a brief email from Palmer about his decision, which did not give reasons for the move. It only said that Barrett’s term was up and after talking with TIFID Administrator Kristen Rosa, he decided to appoint someone else.
Barrett was executive director of the Butte Local Development Corp. in 1989 when he said he and two others got the Legislature to put the concept of tax-increment financing (TIF) for industrial areas into state law.
Like other TIFs, they capture property taxes from new developments so they can be reinvested in new infrastructure and other improvements in those areas. Those in turn can lure new industries and businesses to town and help existing ones expand.
Butte’s TIFID and its Montana Connections Business Park is now home to such companies as REC Silicon, Montana Precision Products, Seacast and a Fed Ex distribution facility.
Barrett, besides leading the BLDC for many years, was Brian Schweitzer’s economic development chief during his years as governor from 2005 to 2013.
Barrett supported Vincent during his re-election campaign for chief executive in 2016, but Palmer — a commissioner for 20 years — won the general election handily and became the county’s top official in January 2017.
Barrett said Wednesday that although he backed Vincent in that race, he told Palmer after the election that he wanted to work with him for the betterment of Butte.
Palmer said the race had nothing to do with his decision and at first told the Standard he just wanted to “change things up” on the board. Then he brought up Barrett’s comments at the Dec. 13 meeting and said it was a key reason for the move.
Palmer said he didn't appoint a commissioner to the talks earlier because there had only been a few meetings and little progress. But the negotiations have picked up, he said, and he had already decided to appoint Olsen to the talks before the Dec. 13 council meeting.
Barrett said he told other members of the TIFID board by email Wednesday that they were free to call him for advice or insight. In his earlier statement, he said he would spend no time "looking in the rear view mirror."