Are things changing at City Hall? “Oh, boy! Are they?” says Geri Hensel, City Clerk. “We have three new councilmen. Ron Teig and John Anderson were just elected. John was on the council some years ago. And, Jack Barnhart has just been on the council for six months.”
The City of Harlowton has initiated a Street Maintenance District which will help the town to keep up with streets, sidewalks, curbs and gutters. There will be a $4 per month charge for each inhabited residence or business. The charge will appear on citizens’ November tax bill. “I don’t have to collect it.” (The Capital Improvement Planning group helped get a number of these necessary changes moving.)
There was an increase in water and sewer rates in October. “People seem to understand. But, it’s frustrating for me. The state makes these requirements of minimum monthly charges for water and sewer rates without taking into account our majority population of older people on fixed incomes. But to get a grant to upgrade our water system, we had to increase our rates.”
“Our engineer is working on the grant application right now. We are planning on a new water tower, repairs to water lines, and improvements at pump stations to increase water pressure.” If things go as planned, the water project could begin in 2009 and present utility rates might suffice.
The City Crew has been reading water meters in recent months so the Council can get an idea as to how much water people generally use. This will help in evaluating base rates. Five months of readings are expected to be completed soon. Readings in the summer may be done to check on usage at the time of the year.
Garbage collection in the city may change before too long, also. “We are working with Disposal Service of Montana. They will continue to pick up garbage, but the City will collect fees. Hopefully with everybody having to pay for garbage pickup, people will use it and not park dumpsters and highway borrow pits.” This change may be a few months off, yet.
Sounds like more work for the City Clerk. Geri says, “It won’t be too much extra work for me once it is set up and in the computer.”
Hensel keeps track of the City’s 6 fulltime and one parttime employee and their payroll. Four are on the City Crew. (An extra serves as parkman in the summer.) The City employs and pays Kathleen Schreiber, the Public Librarian. Then, there is Geri, the City Clerk, and Debbie Davis, who helps several hours a week in the Library and at City Hall.
Over half of the city’s $314,759 budget goes to employee salaries. And, “The budget is very tight this year because people are behind on paying their taxes and because of the law enforcement contract.”
“Last year, the city’s property tax assessments were at $96,000, but we only received $73,000.” At the same time, law enforcement costs were $63,500. That cost will come down in 2009. So, 2008 is the year of the Budget Pinch for Harlowton.
While Wheatland County has benefited significantly from the Judith Gap Wind Farm, the City of Harlowton “has received absolutely no money from it. We do get quarterly payments of $29,000 from the state for vehicles fees, proceeds from poker machines, and the like. Through these non-tax revenues we were just able to make a budget work.”
“We are also paying as many bills and salaries as possible from the water-sewer and gas tax funds into the general fund. The City Crew is documenting all of its hours according to the kind of work they do so that we can have use money from various funds to pay our bills.”
Mrs. Hensel says that the Council does have the option to request mill levies for such budget items as the park, pool and library. Amy Collins is also writing for a Bair Grant to help support the municipal swimming pool.
Geri Hensel came to work as Clerk for the City of Harlowton on February 1, 1984. “I had worked in the County Courthouse as Deputy Treasurer. (Rosemarie Steele was working as a CETA Clerk at tjime.) Then, we bought and ran a dry cleaning business on the highway for three years. We sold the business and when the City Clerk job came open, I applied and was hired.”
For a number of years, Geri’s office was in the loft above the old library in the present City Hall and later in the Courthouse. When the Public Library moved next door to its present location, the City Office returned to its old place but using the whole space.
Mrs. Hensel has worked with three mayors, Oscar Biegel, Rick Billadeau, and John Peccia, and 27 councilpersons. In all that time, there has only been one woman on the Council: CA Buckley from 1988 to 1991.
The biggest change over the years has been in bookkeeping. “The Feds and the State call for lots of reports. Twelve years ago, we computerized the office. Without the computer, one person could not do this work.”
Each new Councilperson also makes for change. Different councils can work together quite differently.
Geri Hensel grew up in Virginia City, MT, and remembers it fondly. She is sad to see some of the changes which have come to it over the years. The Hensels came to Harlowton in 1968 when husband Tony was a highway patrolman. He is now foreman for the County Road Department. Geri and Tony’s five children are spread around the state and just beyond. Dan works for Montana Crane in Bozeman. Michael is a comptroller for bathroom fixture business in Nampa, ID. Charlie works as a plumber in Hardin. Marty is a Physician Assistant student at the University of Seattle. Jennifer lives in Ennis and works at Moonlight Basin.
Geri’s sister Skip moved to Harlowton four years ago and is a cook at Wade’s Drive-In. Geri and Skip are known for walking the town rain or shine. Except when travel, holidays and company get in the way as in recent days. When they are at it, they cover two to four miles at a jaunt.
One of Geri’s main hobbies and interests is decorating. “I like to decorate. (She does a lot of it at the City Hall.) I spend most of my waking hours here, so I like to decorate and make things bright and cheery in the office. Skip comes and helps me put decorations up and take them down.”
Changes of season and holidays see the City Hall changing colors and feeling. Christmas, Winter, Valentines, St. Patrick’s, Spring, 4th of July, Summer, Fall, Halloween, Thanksgiving and back to Christmas. Geri only gets busy with major decorating at home over the Christmas holidays.
What about the big change of retirement? “Well, I’m not quite ready. The City doesn’t have the financial resources at this time for me to be training someone to take my place. But, one of these days.”
What will she do when the day comes? “Oh, I would like to travel. The Black Hills, the Grand Canyon, Alaska on a coastline cruise. And, in the area I would like see the hot air balloons in Billings and go to Livingston more often to see the Firehouse Five. Dan has season tickets. I will be able to spend more time with my kids and grandkids.”
In the meantime. “The Council has had some wakeup calls recently. I went to a program on the Open Meeting Law and presented the information to the Council. That got them started. It has helped to have an agenda. I think it has also helped increase the number of our citizens who come to Council meetings.”
Sounds like positive changes for the City.