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County, cities had to respond fast for stimulus money

by Canda HarbaughWestern News
| March 26, 2009 12:00 AM

The Montana Association of Counties sent commissioners across the state an urgent e-mail Thursday afternoon entitled “Important! Stimulus funding requests needed!”

The Montana League of Cities and Towns called mayors around the state using a similar tone.

In a frenzy, cities and counties were offered a specified amount of money and less than 24 hours to allocate it to a “shovel ready” project that fit federal stimulus package guidelines. Without a prompt response, cities and counties risked losing the funds.

Friday morning Lincoln County commissioners filled out a survey to allocate its $252,108, while Libby and Troy mayors utilized the help of city maintenance personnel to assign a project to spend their $58,276 and $23,328, respectively.  

Commissioners split the county’s funding – $75,000 to contribute to well and septic systems at Eureka Industrial Park and $177,108 for infrastructure at Libby’s Industrial District.

Specifically, commissioners intend to put southern Lincoln County funds toward running an eight-inch water line through the Industrial District to allow the proposed bridge fabricator Stinger Welding, which is projected to eventually provide 200 jobs, to connect to city water. The water line will also benefit any future businesses that move to the area.

Commissioners Tony Berget and John Konzen admitted Friday that it’s a drop in the bucket compared to funding needed to bring in Stinger, but that it will go toward an estimated $2 million shortfall. That amount assumes that the county will receive grants commissioners already applied for, and doesn’t take into consideration other avenues that are being explored to fill the gap. 

Other infrastructure costs that commissioners are looking into involve building roads in the district and Stinger’s need for a high volume of electricity.

Troy Mayor Jim Hammons and Libby Mayor Doug Roll said they appreciate the city funds and will put them to good use, but they echoed commissioners’ sentiments when they noted that the money falls short of financing any project completely.

“It wasn’t hardly enough money,” Roll said, “but it’s a start.”

Libby’s $58,000-plus will help fund a sewer project.

“We put in for a sewer main extension from Montana Avenue to the edge of Cabinet Heights section just to begin the project,” Roll said. “We could at least do a section of that.”

Though Hammons is actively seeking grants for Troy’s water project, the approximately $23,000 could not even put a dimple in the enormously expensive plan. Instead, Hammons proposed spending the money on a project that was already partially funded and is prepared for construction – fixing the city hall roof, painting the building, replacing adjacent sidewalks and adding lighting.

“We budgeted part of the money for it last year,” Hammons said. “We thought we’d budget for the rest of it later. With this coming, we can put that money in something else now.”

Montana legislators allocated $10 million to counties and $10 million to municipalities, and told their respective organizations Thursday to decide how to distribute the funds.

“We responded we would not get into a situation where we were being asked to choose what projects should be funded in any manner that would pit county against county and city against city,” MACo communications director Mike Harbour wrote in an e-mail to county commissioners.

Legislators instructed MACo and the League of Cities and Towns to use whatever formula they wished to distribute the funds. MACo gave each county $100,000, with the remaining $4.4 million allocated using the current tax formula. The League awarded each municipality $5,000, with the remaining amount allocated half based on population and the other half in accordance with the current tax formula.

Projects had to be ready for this construction year and could only go toward building or repairing public buildings, bridges, sewer and water systems, parks and other recreation facilities, and roads, streets and their adjacent curbs, sidewalks and parking strips.

Legislators will not guarantee funding until they verify that each project meets the federal criteria for stimulus expenditures and until projects are signed into legislation.