Valley Cities Vie for Slice of Federal Stimulus Pie

By Beacon Staff

When the federal government offers up $1 trillion, local officials take note.

Across Montana, city and county governments are positioning themselves to get a chunk of a massive economic stimulus plan proposed by President-elect Barack Obama, drawing up lists that detail the foremost infrastructure needs in their communities.

In Northwest Montana, officials are hoping to receive aid for an array of significant projects, such as the reconstruction of Going-to-the-Sun Road, the U.S. Highway 93 bypass and the sewer needs of north Kalispell.

The stimulus plan has been estimated between $750 billion and $1 trillion, and is designed to provide funds for sweeping infrastructure improvements, as well as other economic needs. Similar to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal,” the idea is that the infrastructure projects will create a surge in jobs, thus stimulating the sagging economy. Congress will decide on the plan after Obama officially takes office on Jan. 20.

“They’re talking about a trillion dollars and that’s a number that wasn’t heard of before,” said Alec Hansen, executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Local governments are hoping the plan, if approved by Congress, will distribute the money directly to them, instead of through the state. Though specific details are still unclear, it currently appears that the money would be handed over to the state, which local officials say is inefficient and detrimental to the plan’s goal of providing immediate assistance to “ready-to-go” projects.

As local officials understand it, projects that can’t break ground within a year or so won’t be considered. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, National League of Cities and National Association of Counties have all been lobbying for direct payments to local governments instead of the state.

In the Flathead, Whitefish has already submitted a list to the Montana League of Cities and Towns. The list includes six different projects and asks for roughly $20 million, though City Manager Chuck Stearns said the city will likely revise the list to include a request for $300,000 more to go toward the Trail Runs Through It project.

Whitefish is asking for $9.1 million for a new emergency services center, $5.3 million for its proposed downtown street construction and $1.1 million for sewer improvements, among other wishes.

Kalispell Mayor Pam Kennedy said she has been working on a list with Interim City Manager Myrt Webb and Public Works Director Jim Hansz. Kennedy said some of the city’s foremost needs are major renovations of Two and Three Mile drives and a sewer system in the ever-growing north portion of Kalispell.

It’s important, Kennedy said, to submit requests for “truly viable projects.” The final list will be shown to the city council sometime this month.

“The minute the federal government starting talking about it, we started putting together what we thought would be able to be submitted,” Kennedy said. “When it comes down we’ll be ready to go.”

Columbia Falls’ main focus is its $3.9 million wastewater treatment plant, which is ready to go up for bid. Susan Nicosia, the city’s finance director, said with financial assistance the bid could happen as early as this spring and construction as soon as fall.

“It’s not so much a wish list as a need list,” Nicosia said. “Anything we can do to offset the cost to our citizens, we would look at doing.”

While every state will be vying for its share of the stimulus money, Montana has a couple of influential allies on its side. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., is the head of the Senate Committee on Finance and one of the most influential legislators on federal money matters. Meanwhile, Gov. Brian Schweitzer is the chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. Though it appears that the plan would be “earmark-free,” these two prominent voices are sure to be heard.

“(Baucus) will have a great impact,” Kennedy said.

Some governments are in discussions with Baucus and the rest of the state’s congressional delegation, while others – like Whitefish – are working directly with the League of Cities and Towns. Four cities have submitted requests through the U.S. Conference of Mayors: Bozeman, Darby, Shelby and Missoula.

To see an example of Baucus’ influence, Will Hammerquist of the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) says look no further than Going-to-the-Sun Road. NPCA recently released a report detailing infrastructure projects in national parks that could benefit from the stimulus package. The report identifies Going-to-the-Sun as needing the most money: $21.4 million.

Hammerquist said “of the $82 million that’s been invested, the vast majority is because Max (Baucus) is there.” Hammerquist believes the reconstruction needs $90 million to $140 million more, though some estimates have put the price tag at more than $300 million.

“This is a very significant opportunity to have a needed influx of funds to have the project going forward,” Hammerquist said. “People really understand the value of (the road) to this area and this economy.”

Hansen, who has been the director of the League of Cities and Towns for 26 years, said rural states like Montana have unique infrastructure needs. Small towns often struggle to find funding for even the most necessary infrastructure, like sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants.

In general, Hansen added, there has been “a pattern of deferred maintenance in Montana and probably across the nation for about 30 years.” There used to be substantial federal funds available for infrastructure needs, but Hansen said “all of those grants have disappeared; now they just have loans.”

“We’ve got so much work that needs to be done in this state and no way to get it done,” Hansen said. “We’ve got a pretty good congressional delegation over there and I’m hoping they make the case that rural areas deserve attention just like urban areas.”

Flathead County Commissioner Joe Brenneman said the county is in a good position to receive financial assistance because several of its projects are ready to go immediately. The biggest issue, he said, is road paving. The county has completed its transportation study and road analysis, so the next step is paying somebody to pave the roughly 50 miles of roads identified in the study.

Brenneman isn’t sure how – or if – projects like the Flathead County Library, which needs a new home, will fit into the equation. One other viable project he is sure about, though, is the Bigfork storm water system, which is antiquated.

“This money would go to private contractors – the county wouldn’t be using it because they’ve already done their work,” Brenneman said. “In the past the counties that were most prepared were the ones that most benefited.”

Kennedy and Brenneman both discussed the importance of the Highway 93 bypass, but said ultimately the state’s Department of Transportation is responsible for that. Hammerquist mentioned that the bypass may not meet the “ready-to-go” criteria, as construction is planned over a number of years.

Hansen said regardless of how much money ends up in Montana’s hands, the stimulus plan, if passed, will carry the utmost historical significance.

“Maybe someday we’ll look back and say, ‘By God, that was the right answer,’” Hansen said.