Governor listens to public safety concerns

2012-02-07T20:15:00Z 2014-10-06T13:59:08Z Governor listens to public safety concernsBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette
February 07, 2012 8:15 pm  • 

SIDNEY — Shortly after Sherry Arnold disappeared in early January and residents here learned foul play was likely, the town's mayor, Bret Smelser, held a community meeting.

It was for "concerned women," he said.

He wanted to address their fears while at the same time empowering them. The city is offering them tae kwon do classes and at the meeting, vendors showed off a line a pepper sprays available to them.

"It's a sad deal," he said of the presumed abduction and death of Arnold, a popular high school teacher. "We're a tight community. I doubt that we'll ever be whole again."

At the same time, Smelser stressed the importance of the recent oil boom to the area's economy and he emphasized that the majority of workers coming to the area were good people simply looking for work.

"We welcome the newcomers," he said. "And we'll do everything we can to make them feel comfortable."

But it's been hard. Oil production in this corner of northeastern Montana has swelled over the last two years, swamping city, county and school resources.

Meeting with city officials Tuesday, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer promised to help find ways to direct resources to the city itself to help alleviate some of its growing pains.

"The boom's been mostly good for our community, but there's been pain," Smelser said.

His hope is the state can find ways to get his town the money it needs sooner so city officials can manage Sidney's growth.

"For us it's a problem of time," Smelser said. "We have the impacts now and the revenue later."

Along with the strain on town infrastructure has been the fear of increased crime.

"Wolves follow the herd," said Kelly Buxbaum, production supervisor for a frack site run by Continental Resources.

"If you double the population, you're going to double everything else," said Russ Atkins, the Bakken Area operations manager for Continental Resources.

Sidney is expected to double in size from 5,000 people to 10,000 people in the next couple of years. That kind of quick growth puts pressure just about everywhere, Smelser said.

In terms of the workers flooding the area, Schweitzer believes most of them are good people.

"This concept that they're these hardworking roughnecks, I don't buy that," he said.

The oil industry is different from what it was 30 years ago, he said.

Atkins agreed. Random drug testing of employees is standard in the industry now and companies thoroughly screen their applicants.

"We screen 'em hard," said Brad Aman, vice president for northern region production for Continental Resources.

Buxbaum grew up in the area and has watched the industry grow and change around Sidney. He now manages a crew of 60 men working on a frack site 45 miles northwest of Sidney.

"There's a lot of good people out there," he said.

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

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