Laurel and Big Timber are among the communities across Montana struggling to provide clean drinking water, deal with storm runoff, and maintain roads and bridges. They are also scratching their heads over how to pay for these multi-million dollar projects with their small tax or rate base.
“I think the biggest challenge I’ve seen is the funding. It’s always about the funding,” said Kurt Markegard, he’s been the public works director for the City of Laurel for the past 14 years. “We can always design and build everything that we will need it’s how do you afford it?”
One challenge for Laurel is when flooding on the Yellowstone River changed the river topography in 2011 and with it the flow of water. The change made the existing water intake system into the water treatment plant insufficient.
The damage to the water intake system was included in the presidential disaster declaration and most of the costs for Laurel’s fix will be covered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Laurel’s fight is over the 25% “local” match, roughly $3 million dollars. Is that match the responsibility of the State of Montana or the City of Laurel.
Past Montana Legislatures didn’t appropriate the money then during the 2017 session, funding for the project was in the so-called “Bonding Bill” that was filled with numerous infrastructure projects.
Initial votes were close and had more of the Republican members from the Yellowstone County Legislative delegation supported it might have passed. In the end, the bill failed.
Then-Laurel City Administrator Heidi Jensen was among those who had urged lawmakers in 2017 to pass the bill.
“She did because she wanted the money,” said Tom Nelson, the mayor of Laurel and a former city council member. “I felt that’s not where the money should be coming from so I was against that.”
Nelson continues to argue the Laurel intake is not the typical infrastructure project and the money should come from the state’s disaster fund.
“It has a presidential disaster declaration number, 1996 – FEMA 1996-DR-MT – and the state paid their 25% share on 5 other project worksheets under the same disaster declaration number and didn’t pay the 25% on the last project worksheet under the same disaster declaration,” said Nelson referring to the state refusing to pay the share for the Laurel Intake. “It’s not an infrastructure project when it has a federal declared disaster declaration number.”
While the fight over the money continues, Laurel had to do something to provide municipal water. Officials took just over $1 million out of its reserves and took out a nearly $2 million loan from the State Revolving Loan Fund Program, pushing the community West of Billings near its borrowing capacity. Nelson said he’ll continue to press the state for the money.
Big Timber also faces issues with its water system. City Council member Justin Ferguson said local taxpayers had to shoulder the cost for its water filtration plant. He said the council had to raise rates about 60% to pay for the project. Ferguson said the result is some residents are limiting how much water they use.
“Therefore the lawns are drying up. The trees are drying up. It’s kinda sad to see that, especially the people on fixed income it’s a choice between watering their lawn or buying their prescription drugs,” he said. “It’s not a hard decision for ‘em but it’s sad.”
Ferguson said Big Timber wasn’t able to qualify for any state grants for the project because at the time their rates were too low.
“This is just a personal opinion of mine, we should be able to take care of ourselves. Not count on anyone to take care of us,” he said. “But we do pay state taxes, we do pay federal taxes, county taxes and it wouldn’t be beyond me to take those funds if they were available from the feds, the state or even the county.”
Still, Ferguson said one of the challenges they face is his rural community has a small tax base to shoulder a multi-million dollar project. And that’s challenge for a number of Montana communities.
Senator Jon Tester spent Saturday listening to residents in Laurel, Columbus, and Big Timber talk about their water, road, broadband and other needs. Later he said while these projects can’t be paid for alone by reducing waste, fraud and abuse in government, at the same time he says it’s about investing for today and the future.
“One of the things we have in rural America that is a disadvantage, and it’s one of the things that makes rural America great by the way, is we have a large landmass with not a lot of people so often times we need help,” he said. “As we help supply this world with food they need to help us with some of these issues that cost a lot of money for a very few peoples, if you know what I mean, for the overall scheme of things.”
He said infrastructure should be an issue that can bring people together, regardless of where they fall on the political spectrum. But in perhaps recognition to the fact he and others are on the ballot this year, he said voters have to know if the people representing them think infrastructure is a priority.
Congress is expected to take up debate on an infrastructure bill next month.