Flathead Officials Should Start Begging

By Kellyn Brown

Instead of debating the merits of an inevitable federal government stimulus plan and arguing over whether such an influx of money will shore up the U.S. economy, Flathead Valley municipalities should get in line early and start begging.

Fortunately, it appears that they already have their respective hats out.

No longer is there a question of whether Congress and the incoming Obama administration will provide aid to states to invest in infrastructure; it’s now a matter of when and how much. Thus, cities across the country are making their respective wish lists.

Baltimore, Md., wants $326 million, part of which would be used for water reservoir improvements. Boston, Mass., wants $183 million for, among other things, fixing its sidewalks. Here in Montana, Bozeman will ask for a little more than $9 million, with a quarter of that cost set to design a police station.

There are a lot of hands out and up to $1 trillion up for grabs, which several governors say is needed to jump-start their respective economies. But the funds will only go so far. And how the money will be divvied up is a complete mystery. Will the states – 43 out of 50 – that have budget deficits get preferential treatment? Will urban areas get first dibs? If either is the case, then Montana is at the back of the line and could score a few measly stoplights.

That hasn’t, however, stopped some of our cities from dreaming big. Missoula has made a list totaling about $155 million – about one-third of which would go to their Rails-to-Trails Conservancy Campaign and, according to its survey on the United States Conference of Mayors Web site, would provide 806 jobs. Shelby has asked for a whopping $91 million, a chunk of which would be used to expand its airport.

So far, Whitefish is asking for a more modest $20 million – its biggest expense a new emergency services center that would house courts, police and fire departments. Kalispell, according to Mayor Pam Kennedy, is still fleshing out a list of projects to be presented to the city council later this month. At the top is renovations of Two and Three Mile drives and a new sewer system to serve the city’s rapidly growing north end. The county will also be asking for cash.

It’s a good start, but more is needed, mainly an intense lobbying effort directed at Montana’s U.S. delegation and Gov. Brian Schweitzer. After all, U.S. Sen. Max Baucus is the head of the Senate Finance Committee and Schweitzer is chairman of the Democratic Governors Association. Our local officials need to pick up the phone and argue that the Flathead Valley, as far as Montana urban areas go, needs money the most.

Perhaps no sector of the economy has been hit as hard as manufacturing, which this county depends on as its backbone. There is no university here, few state government jobs and little in the way of energy development. Our unemployment rate is above the national average and continues to rise. If the world were fairer, local economies that actually produce things would not suffer the consequences of mistakes made by greedy corporate executives buying and selling financial instruments they don’t understand. But that’s not how the last six months have worked out.

It’s time for Schweitzer and Baucus to use their so-called clout and funnel money this way. If we can’t count on them now, then when?

The jury is still out on whether Obama’s economic recovery plan – which mixes billions in tax cuts with billions for infrastructure – will stem the recession’s slide. But since there is little doubt that a plan will pass, possibly as soon as February, Flathead officials should be selfish about its constituents’ needs and begin soliciting money early and often.