By Kay Braddock
A tentatively planned windfall of federal stimulus money may be on the verge of hitting the bank accounts of local municipalities. House Bill 645, which has allocated $20 million for cities and counties statewide, passed the state House last Thursday and is making its way through the state Senate.
Local officials said they were left scrambling when a March 20 e-mail from Helena was received, directing them to present project ideas for the money, with only a few hours notice to respond.
“It was kind of comical,” Wibaux town clerk, Carol Markuson said of the situation. She said she received the e-mail at about 10 am with a deadline of 3 pm to present project ideas for Wibaux’s proposed $17,644. She discussed the matter during the lunch hour of Wibaux’s mayor Dale Evans.
“I just couldn’t understand why they couldn’t have given it another day,” she said.
Prairie County and Town of Terry officials described similar scenarios after receiving the e-mail, which apologized for the short notice.
As it stands right now, Terry is set to receive $23,571. The formula dividing the money between towns and cities statewide is based on population and gas tax distribution, which is determined by the miles of existing streets and alleys.
Prairie County is set to receive $129,674. All 56 counties were given a base of $100,000 with the remaining federal funds distributed in accordance with the gas tax formula.
Town and county officials agreed to submit park improvements as one of the proposed projects to be used with the federal stimulus money. Renovating Murn Park’s bathroom facilities will be the primary project for the town’s money, while $49,674 of the county’s money will be used on the project as well. The county’s remaining $80,000 will be used to replace the fairground’s grandstands.
Listing swimming pool renovations wasn’t allowed according to federal guidelines, explained Mayor Marvin Varner.
Although preliminary drawings have already been made on how to renovate the bathrooms, Varner said he wasn’t sure what mandates the federal guidelines would dictate in order to complete the project.
What about using some of the money to overlay streets?
Terry is not alone in its need to improve streets, or its constant seasonal battle of filling pot holes each spring. Town officials from Terry, Wibaux and Circle agree that it would take a lot more money than what was being offered in order to overlay streets with new asphalt.
“There’s just no funding to do major jobs anymore,” Circle Mayor Njadl (Ned) Sikeveland said about street improvements.
After a contractors-backed legislation passed in Helena about 10 years ago prohibiting state crews from working on streets, without those jobs being bid out to contractors, many small communities were left with deteriorating streets due to the high contractor costs, explained Sikeveland.
“They priced themselves out of business with all the small communities, because they’re too expensive,” Sikeveland said, explaining many small towns can barely afford to pay the mobilization costs, let alone the costs for material and labor.
Contractors typically charge a mobilization fee that covers the expense of moving equipment and crews to a specified location.
Small sparsely populated communities, like those dotting Eastern Montana, are left patching and repairing streets each spring, with no foreseeable hope of a complete overhaul, Sikeveland explained.
“I can picture them going right back to the gravel road because there’s no funding,” Sikeveland said of future projections for street conditions in small towns.
Funds to repair streets are drawn from gas tax revenue, Varner explained, noting those same funds must be used to pay for the wages of maintenance workers, equipment and materials.
“We’re in as good of shape as anybody,” Varner said of the streets in Terry in comparison to many other small towns in Montana. “And we’re in bad shape.”
Published April 1, 2009