The View from Dunrovin: State and local government not always business friendly

An equestrian at the Dunrovin Ranch.

By SuzAnne M. Miller

My love affair with horses came rather late in life. I was nearly 45 with two children and living in Alaska when I decided that I needed to be around horses. It seemed a simple decision at the time, but little did I know its long-term implications. You could say that was the start of Dunrovin Ranch.

Knowing by experience the challenges that older, first time horse people face, I took into my head to develop a program at Dunrovin where people seriously interested in horses could learn and experience all that it entails. I call this program the Dunrovin Equestrian Club. A number of local horse owners are “graduates” of the club and new people join each year.

This comes to mind on the heels of my last two Missoula Current articles about my employees because creating the Equestrian Club inadvertently gave me my first bitter taste of dealing with government regulators. Government, you see, dictates the terms under which businesses relate to their employees. For the vast majority of my life, that is BEFORE I became an employer, I reflexively supported government regulations that protected the labor force. I still do – to some extent, in some ways. But my personal business experiences have led me to understand that improperly implemented government regulations can be very destructive to businesses that create jobs.

My problems began with the word club. In attempting to secure the required workers compensation insurance from Montana StateFund, the word club in the Dunrovin Equestrian Club description caused some clerk in StateFund’s Helena office to classify my business as a polo club. They blithely informed me that as a polo club that I would have to pay them $0.9533 for every $1 that I paid my employees. YES, that’s right, they wanted to double my labor costs.

I, of course, objected. They dug in their heels.

Excerpts from two of my letters tell the story.

“I write this letter (12/12/06) to request a customer service audit of Dunrovin’s account and history of contacts with Montana StateFund. On 11/16/06, Dunrovin received a letter from Mr. K notifying us that we had been assessed an penalty of $553.24 for lack of worker’s compensation insurance … I disputed the penalty in a letter to Mr. K dated 11/18/06 stating that Dunrovin’s lack of worker’s compensation was due entirely to errors made by StateFund. Please note the following enclosed documentation:

“During our dealings with StateFund, we were directed to no less than 7 different staff members: Vicki, Pat, Becky, Carolyn, Rebecca, Marie, and Susan.

  • At one point we tried for over 40 times to fax our application to your office, including faxing during after hours, late at night. We were told that StateFund was experiencing an “onslaught” of faxes.
  • When our application was misclassified as a polo club, we were told that we would have to cancel our application in order to correct the classification…
  • The misclassification of our business stems from the use of the word club in our business offerings. Our club is not even remotely like a polo club. When we explained this, StateFund suggested in a threatening way that we would need an NCII inspection, which we welcome.”

My Feb. 1, 2007 letter to StateFund begins: “Please reference my 12/12/06 letter … Yesterday, I received a response from Mr. K dated 01/26/07 which is wholly unsatisfactory to me.

“Note that his letter came only after my notifying the Montana Department of Labor and Industry on 1/25/07 that I had had no response from your organization in spite of repeated calls and messages…

“Mr. K’s letter provides no documentation …. His letter simply states that “our records do not indicate ….In contrast, my 12/6/06 letter provided specific dates of contact, names of employees contacted, and copies of emails summarizing some of those contacts. Any independent auditor will not fail to observe the pattern….

“My correspondences with your organization have been demonstratively accurate, documented, and on time. Whereas, your correspondence has been demonstratively inaccurate, undocumented, and delayed. I request a thorough audit ….”

This last letter was copied to my state representatives. I finally got action in the form of a personal phone call from the executive director of StateFund. What an incredible nine month ordeal.

SuzAnne M. Miller
SuzAnne M. Miller

Unfortunately, this ordeal was only one of many that Dunrovin has had with local, state and federal government over a wide range of issues. This was not even the most egregious example. That one belongs to Missoula County’s hauling us into court to close us down (ultimate court ruling in our favor). Is it any wonder that business and government have such a difficult relationship?

Government must do better. When a single word in a business description can be so badly misinterpreted and put a new business through such turmoil, it only tells the next prospective employer down the line that it just isn’t worth the effort to engage with faceless, unresponsive bureaucracies who seem to care so little about their impact.

SuzAnne M. Miller is the owner of the Dunrovin Ranch in Lolo. Her column appears regularly in the Missoula Current. Visit her websites at www.DunrovinRanchMontana.com and www.DaysAtDunrovin.com.