Required alcohol server training course draws mixed feelings

Jon Kellogg serving at The Jesters Bar in Helena

Those selling alcohol in the state of Montana need to go through an alcohol server training course. The state has required such a course for about a year after a law was enacted by the 2011 Legislature.

The usefulness of the course has some mixed reviews.

Bartender Jon Kellogg took the state’s alcohol server training course soon after it became law to do so.

He’s quick to give his opinion.

“Did you learn anything from that?” I asked.


He’d only been working as a bartender for about six months before he took the course. He says he already knew the ropes.

“It was common sense and basic laws,” Kellogg said.

Lawmakers passed the law in 2011 to require anyone selling alcohol in the state be trained to comply with state law, particularly regarding sale to minors and to those who are already too intoxicated. The courses are operated at the County Level. In Lewis and Clark County, the organization Youth Connections facilitates the course, because of its work to limit alcohol sale to minors.

Organization Director Drenda Niemann says hundreds have taken the course offered once every two months in Helena over the last year.

It’s offered not only bartenders but to “individuals who work in a grocery store or convenience store setting–as well as a bar setting,” Niemann said.

She argues the course has been helpful, teaching new bartenders about the law and reinforcing the rules for long-time servers. Lewis and Clark County has been offering the course for five or six years and in that time she says underage drinking has gone down.

“We can’t attribute that to one thing, because we do a lot in our community to help prevent underage drinking,” she said, adding it probably helps though.

The course does have a curriculum set by the state. Local law enforcement assists in the instruction. But Niemann says the course does not have a strict schedule the whole time and instructors draw on the knowledge of veteran bartenders.

“It is definitely not a setup of instructors just speaking to or lecturing to the class, it’s definitely conversational and we learn from each other.”

Back at The Jesters Bar, that’s where bartender Jon Kellogg works, he’s serving to Jesse Athearn, who also got certified through the alcohol server program. Athearn pretty much has the same opinion as Kellogg about the training.

“‘If somebody’s really really drunk, don’t serve them,’ and they just beat that into your head. Every bartender on the world knows that.”

Athearn describes the $15 course as just another way for the government to get some of his money.

Across town at Van’s, a local grocery store, cashier Christel Dinges says the course did not help her personally, because she’s been doing this for awhile. Yet, she agrees with the program.

“Yes, it does help, the program does serve everybody actually,” she said.

She says even the people in her checkout line not buying alcohol are affected by how their cashier checks the IDs of the people who are buying it.

Youth Connections Director Drenda Niemann says these courses add confidence to those serving alcohol by recognizing them as professionals.

“We tell them during the class that Pharmacists go through years and years and years of schooling in order to administer drugs,” she said, “and really, alcohol is considered a drug and they’re going through a four hour course.”

A four hour course in a state with one of the highest alcohol-related fatality rates in the country.

Primary Day slow at the polls, absentee ballots up

Andrew Funk (left) waits to receive his ballot at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse

Andrew Funk (left) waits to receive his ballot at the Lewis and Clark County Courthouse

The votes are still coming in. The polls are still open for Montana’s Primary Election. Hotly-contested races for Governor, US House and Attorney General hang in the balance.

And yet, at polling places, Election Day excitement seems pretty mild.

College student Andrew Funk just moved from Missoula back to Helena for the Summer. He had a spare minute while the people in front of him registered to vote.

“I grew up here and I have personal connections to the people in this community running, so I wanted to cast my vote for the people that I really know,” he said.

In a room right next to Funk, those registered could grab their ballots and turn them in. There was a fairly constant stream of voters, but it was a pretty tepid one.

Lewis and Clark County Election Supervisor Marilyn Bracken says it’s the slowest Primary Day she has seen in a long time. Her office was a lot busier the last two primaries, 2008 and 2010.

“In 2008 they were lined up two lines out to the motor vehicle department,” she said.

That’s a pretty long line, considering by that time Andrew Funk had already finished registration and was grabbing his ballot.

“We don’t have an urgency of races,” said Montana Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, “We don’t have a presidential race hanging in the balance.”

2008 was a unique situation. The Democratic Presidential Primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was still up in the air. Montana’s results really mattered nationally. There’s nothing like that now. McCulloch expects the primary turnout percentage to be somewhere in the 30s, maybe low 40s. She says overall, that’s about average.

There is one bright spot. The state sent out a record number of absentee ballots for a primary, almost 190 thousand. Latest figures show 67 percent have been turned back in. A decade ago the absentee return rate was more like 15 percent.

“So it really has changed the mindset and people can sit at home around the kitchen table and fill out their ballot and they can go online or check the literature and so they can do it at their leisure,” McCulloch said.

A dozen counties across the state will be hand-counting their ballots. Election officials say this does not mean they will be late, however the votes are tallied.

“It’s good that counties could prepare their ballots yesterday and quite a few did,” McCulloch said. “So they can kind of lay them flat and get them ready to go through the machines and count them….I think we’re gonna see some results by 10 O’Clock.”

And for those of you who haven’t voted yet—the 60 to 70 percent of you out there. If you’re reading this right now, you still have a chance. YOU can still vote.

“If they hear it at 7:55 tonight, they can still take part,” McCulloch said. “They can still register to vote up until 8 O’Clock they can return their absentee ballots up until 8 O’Clock and they can vote at the polls until 8 O’Clock.”

Until 8 PM, you still totally have time. You can still do it.

And don’t forget, Montana Public Radio will be bringing you live coverage of results and analysis on the hour starting as soon as the polls close at 8 o’clock.

Helena residents using grants for wildfire mitigation

Forester Devin Healy looks over a mitigation project in Helena’s South Hills.

National weather forecasters are predicting an average wildfire year for the Northern Rockies. Still, Helena fire specialists are busy taking out trees around the edge of town, preparing as much as they can. Computer models show that a wildfire in the hills just south of Helena could make its way in as far as the capitol building.

Landowners can apply for grants to help reduce the wildfire fuels on their property.

Lewis and Clark County mitigation project manager Pat McKelvey picked me up at the backdoor of the capitol building Wednesday morning. It was sunny and already getting pretty warm.

We started driving and he says people often think about wild-land fire as being far out…in the wild-lands. He then pointed to the hillside of trees, right in front of us.

“Well here you are, you’re right here a half-mile south of the capitol building and that’s wild-land urban interface, big time,” he said.

We stopped in this dense wooded area. Or, rather, it used to be dense.

“Today, I’m gonna be sawing some of these big pine trees down,” says Levi Cheff, owner and operator of Fire Solutions Incorporated. He was a man of his word, sawing down multiple tall trees. He was thinning an area of about 16 acres. He was walking between groups of trees—most of them killed by the Mountain pine beetle–taking them out one by one.

His colleague nearby was driving this machine called the masticator. It’s a skid-steer with a spinning rod of heavy metal teeth on the front. It basically grinds through any little tree in its way.

Forester Devin Healy was overseeing this project for the landowner, protecting the integrity of the ecosystem. He calls this a roadside fuel reduction project.

“To reduce the fire intensity in this area should a fire burn through here to improve access for emergency vehicles,” he says.

County Mitigation project manager Pat McKelvey says that’s a major priority in every direction around Helena. The roads are often too narrow, the trees too thick.

“When there’s smoke, fire, adrenaline running and the fire guys are trying to get in and the residents are trying to get out, we have that scenario playing out all over Helena,” McKelvey said.

Resident Ginger Agee lives on the big hill right behind the capitol building. Her home is beautiful and very wooden.

“We do have a shake-cedar sided home so I was pretty concerned about that,” she said.

A couple years ago she applied for a grant to thin the thick trees around her place. Her neighbors all did too. The hillside is emptier now, but safer.

“It was so much better,” she said. She’s learned to still keep a close watch for any new fire hazards. She makes sure to keep bushes away from her home and she’s always checking her rain gutters for leaves and debris.

“Those need to be cleaned out all the time, because if there is a fire and the sparks get into the rain gutters they can ignite what is in there,” she said.

Like the County’s Pat McKelvey says, fire mitigation is a year round job.


Helena area looks to prevent repeat of 2011 floods

Helena resident Sharlene Larance looks over a new ditch and culvert network installed near her home on Tuesday

The National Weather Service predicts a less-severe flood season for Montana in 2012.

Major floods covered large areas of the state last Spring, causing damage to homes and infrastructure.

Officials are still urging caution. Lewis and Clark County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Paul Spengler says most of the winter snowpack is still waiting in the mountains and we are heading into the two rainiest months of the year in May and June.

“It’s prime, it’s ready to come out because of the hot weather so if we get a lot of heavy rain on that that could cause some problems,” Spengler said.

Lewis and Clark County is trying to prevent any repeats of last year’s flooding in the Helena Valley. The County has spent about $70 thousand in the last year on flood mitigation efforts.

A paving crew beside Helena’s Forestvale road was covering up a wide gap in a turnoff to a parking lot on Tuesday–a gap opened to put in a new culvert three feet in diameter.

Truck driver Jeff Hoffman works with the crew. He lives close by and said these pipes will make a big difference.

“Oh yeah, I think they will, because they’re a lot bigger than they used to be,” he said.

“There’s been significant changes,” said Sharlene Larance, who lives a block or two away.

She was looking up and down the now dusty street. The wide culverts run parallel to the road, beneath each side street, running into deep ditches freshly carved this year.

Larance says this whole area was underwater last June. She pointed to a nearby turnoff.

“They actually had a picture of some kids in a boat in the paper,” she said, pointing to a nearby turnoff.

Her house doesn’t have much of a basement, so she escaped without too much damage. Other homes in the neighborhood weren’t so lucky. Larance joined the local Valley Flood Committee formed as the waters receded last Summer. Residents on the committee have met every month over the last year with county officials—looking for a solution.

“We squawk and squeal and hope we get attention,” she said, laughing.

Lewis and Clark County Commissioner Derek Brown also attends the flood committee meetings. He says most of the money spent on flood prevention in the last year was spent on this project–on the culverts and the ditches along this road.

“That’s the part of the county that had the most significant damage, the highest population concentration,” Brown said. “There were flooding events in rural areas but they didn’t affect very many people.”

Lewis and Clark County has hired an engineering firm to make a long-range plan for flood prevention. Brown says more projects will come in the future as finances allow. Still, neighbors in adjacent areas have attended recent flood committee meetings threatening to sue over what they see as unfair treatment.

As Sharlene Larance says, there is still a lot of squawking to do.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is calling this week the first ever Severe Weather Preparedness Week.

The agency says families should know the potential emergencies for their area well and have plans in place should those emergencies occur.

You can find a lot more information on FEMA’s disaster preparedness recommendations by clicking this link.