Havre Daily News
The $20 million First Street reconstruction project is still in jeopardy, but progress was made at a meeting Thursday, a Montana Department of Transportation official said today.
The project appeared endangered last month when the Hill County commissioners objected to the cost assigned to the county for drainage improvements that are part of the project.
At the meeting Thursday, the commissioners agreed with MDT's assessment of the county's costs, but said the county still has no way to assess drainage fees to pay for its share.
At that point in the meeting, MDT and the city of Havre each offered to pitch in one-third of the county's total share of about $550,000, leaving $180,000 to be raised by Hill County.
“We got what we asked for. We got a price that wasn't $500,000,” Hill County Commission chair Kathy Bessette said Thursday. Even with the help, the money will be hard to find in the county's budget, she said.
Mick Johnson, MDT district director, said he'll need an agreement regarding the costs of the project by June in order for the project to go forward. Work is to begin by 2007. Johnson said the state can begin the work without the local contribution, but will need the local funds in hand by July 2008.
“I'm optimistic they'll do everything they can,” Johnson said today.
“I'll do everything I can to make this work out,” he added. “This is a very important project to me. I was very encouraged with the city and county's participation yesterday.”
The state, city and county were to share the costs of a new storm sewer system based on the origin of the runoff water that drains under First Street to the Milk River.
The need for a higher-capacity storm sewer system is one of the major reasons for the reconstruction project that will replace the First Street roadway and the road subsurface in Havre. The cost of the storm sewer replacement is $8 million to $8.2 million, Johnson said. The state has agreed to pay 64 percent of that, more than $5 million, based on a study by the engineering firm Morrison Maierle Inc. that showed that most of the runoff under First Street originates on the state's right of way. The same study assigned about 29 percent of the runoff to areas within the city limits, making the city responsible for more than $2 million - an amount officials say it will pay for with federal road funds allocated to the city each year and a loan. The final 7 percent of the runoff was assigned to the county, leaving it responsible for about $550,000.
County officials said they couldn't sign the agreement last month for several reasons. The engineering study had used an outdated map, assigning to the county parcels that have since been annexed by Havre. Also, they said the county has no way to distribute the costs among county taxpayers, whereas the city has fees for drainage districts. They also questioned the merit of asking taxpayers in Hingham to pay for Havre's streets.
“As much lobbying as we're getting from the city ... we're getting lobbied just as heavily by people outside,” Bessette said.
“But they drive the highways,” Debbie Vandeberg, Havre Area Chamber of Commerce executive director, called out from the audience.
Bessette said those constituents would make the point that the highways that pass through town are state highways not paid for by local funds.
Some of the commissioners' concerns were addressed Thursday.
An engineer presented an updated runoff distribution map that gave to the city about 150 acres that initially had been assigned to the county. That made little difference to the overall cost because the county was still responsible for 1,300 acres.
Earlier in the meeting, before the city and MDT made their offers to pay some of the county's costs, Bessette said taking $500,000 out of the county budget would eliminate the Road Department completely.
The help came when Havre Mayor Bob Rice asked the comissioners how much the county could afford and proposed they pay $180,000.
“If you don't see a light at the end of the tunnel, and a means to keep that lit, then we're going to have to come up with a plan C,” Rice said.
Johnson said the state could pick up another third.
Even with the help, the county can't generate $180,000 from its discretionary funds even over three budget years, the commissioners said.
Raising $180,000 presents some of the problems raising $500,000 would, Commissioner Doug Kaercher said. The county does not have the option of raising the money through a Community Development Block Grant or a Treasure State Endowment Project grant. The county could ask for a ballot initiative to approve a loan, but he said it might not pass and November 2006 would be the earliest date to hold an election for it.
Kaercher said after the meeting that the county has about $30,000 in discretionary funds each budget year, and that often goes toward mental health costs, a service he said the county would be unwise not to provide. Voluntary mental health service is less costly than paying for an involuntary committal down the road, he said.
“We know what to dig for and we have two budget years, maybe three” to find it, Bessette said.
As for the city's offer, Rice said he'd offered as much as the city can afford to pay.
“This is not a figure I haven't researched,” he told the commissioners. “It's not arbitrary. I've worked on it for three weeks. ... I'm way out on a limb on it, but I know you are too.”
In an interview after the meeting, Rice declined to say where the city's extra contribution would come from. “That was an offer,” Rice said. “We don't know if it will work.”
Havre public works director Dave Peterson said today the city is paying for about half its own storm sewer contribution through federal road funds and the other half with a loan that will be paid back with storm sewer district fees. The storm sewer district encompasses the entire city.
Peterson said he doesn't know how the city would pay for part of the county's portion.
“I don't believe any of that information is worked out,” he said.