County officials to Legislature: Borrow $157.4M for infrastructure

Democratic Rep. Jon Sesso supports House Bill 14, which would allow the Legislature to finance some infrastructure through bonding. (Freddy Monares/Legislative News Service)

By Freddy Monares/UM Legislative News Service

HELENA – County officials from across Montana ascended Capitol Hill Tuesday in support of House Bill 14, which would borrow $157.4 million for infrastructure projects in the state through general obligation bonds.

The bill would help fund 48 projects through grants – projects like failing water systems that the Department of Environmental Quality have kept their eye on.

Denton Mayor Joel Barber was one of dozens who showed their support for the bonding bill. He says his town is on the DEQ’s list.

“We have a transmission line that’s over 80 years old, that actually loses probably about half of what we produce in water gets leaked into the ground just making it from the source to town,” Barber said.

Barber was joined by Denton’s City Council Chairwoman Branya Willmore who also testified in support of the bill. She says with the declining population of rural communities, it’s difficult keeping people in the small community.

“The water is not safe to drink for any pregnant or nursing women, or children under one year of age. And so, the town actually pays for five-gallon bottles of water for those community members to have, but everyone else is on their own for drinking water,” Willmore said.

Democratic Sen. Jon Sesso supports the bill.

“Twenty-four and 24 are the lines now if we want to do something for these projects and getting more done, we’re going to have to do something about it,” Sesso said.

Jennifer Olson, chief of community grants for Montana, outlined the criteria for grant recipients:

“So while we do look at financial need — as well as a number of different other factors — as well as their solution, job creation; the health and safety is what leads the focus of all of the projects,” Olson said.

Supporters for the bill, like Barber, say they hope it would curtail the health concerns that crumbling infrastructure create for residents of smaller towns.

“And because of all our problems, I signed an administrative order of consent with the DEQ to fix the problems. It’s been a long battle for the town of Denton, but hopefully this bill, and your help, we can get it fixed,” Barber said.

The committee will hear applications for grants Wednesday.

Freddy Monares is a reporter with the UM Legislative News Service, a partnership of the University of Montana School of Journalism, the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation.