Laurel joins group to address funding

By: 
KATHLEEN GILLULY
Outlook managing editor

Montana’s roads, bridges, water and sewer systems are in a state of critical disrepair, according to a report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. The state legislature hasn’t passed a funding bill to address the state-wide infrastructure issues for the past two bienniums, or since 2011. The few major metropolitan areas in the state—Billings, Bozeman and Missoula—have budgets that can absorb some of the huge costs to make repairs or replace aging systems while smaller municipalities and county governments watch as their communities crumble. Although there will be battles over what to fund and how much to spend in the legislative session beginning in January, the Governor has already announced cuts to the state’s budget.
“The problem this session is going to be that there is no money,” Rep. Vince Ricci (HD 55) said during a recent interview on the state’s obligation to pay a 25 percent share of Laurel’s new water intake. FEMA is paying 75 percent of the cost to replace the components of the intake that were in place and damaged during the 2011 flood event. Ricci is working with the city, Councilman Tom Nelson and other lawmakers on getting the state to comply with the conditions it accepted under the disaster designation.
Regardless of who writes the check for the intake, Laurel’s streets are crumbling, curbs and gutters and sidewalks in older neighborhoods are hazardous and aging pipes creak while sewer lift stations stink. Many of those items fall under the city’s umbrella, but a boost from the state with matching funds or other incentives would certainly help.
Despite the Governor’s directive to the incoming legislature to pass an infrastructure bill as the first bill of the session, it is unlikely the budget will allow for more than a bandaid locally.
“We aren’t going to have anything to fight over this session,” Ricci said. “There isn’t any money to fight over.”
Gov. Bullock said he and his administration are insisting on a responsible budget that will leave a balance of $300 million at the end the 2019 fiscal year.
“The budget is a reflection of Montana values,” he said. “Montanans expect our state’s leaders to live within our means and make responsible decisions about our state finances.”
In response to the years of neglect of public works and roads, a group of engineers and consultants have been discussing solutions to the funding problems in the state.
At the Nov. 1, meeting of the Laurel’s city council, the board approved membership in the recently organized MT Infrastructure Coalition. The $5,000 membership fee entitles Laurel to vote, be involved in discussions guiding the direction of the group and to assist in forming policy decisions. Among other local governments that have anted up are Billings, Bozeman, Butte-Silver Bow (city-county government), Dawson County, Fallon County, Glendive and Helena. Other voting members represent construction and engineering concerns, as well as the Montana Association of Oil, Gas and Counties and the Montana AFL-CIO. The group’s intent is to formulate a plan and lobby the legislature.
During an audio chat with the council, Executive Director Darryl James said the coalition will also sponsor an educational campaign to enlist the public’s support.
Laurel’s Chief Administrative Officer Heidi Jensen attended the Nov. 14, meeting in Bozeman. According to minutes from the meeting, the recommendation to eliminate several possible revenue-raising tools was passed without opposition. Those eliminated from current consideration were a vehicle miles traveled tax, income tax, toll roads, statewide sales tax and a bed tax. Items may be revisited later.
Tools left on the table to be developed as part of the legislative package were a $.10 fuel tax, a local option tourism tax (would require voter approval), enhancing infrastructure assistance through the coal tax trust fund, promoting public private partnerships and a bonding bill.
The coalition plans to fine-tune its proposals for the legislature and is seeking input from the public. Learn more about the coalition’s plans or submit comments to Darryl James at
459-6574, or via email at darryl@jamesconsult.com

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