Havre Daily News
The First Street reconstruction project, set to be the biggest single overhaul of a state highway in Montana's history, could be delayed or called off if Hill County doesn't agree to pay some costs for new storm drains, a Montana Department of Transportation official said Wednesday.
County officials said they don't know how the county will be able to raise the money to pay the bill.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said he's concerned that the project, seen as a way to revitalize the local economy, could be in jeopardy.
"If they don't have the money, MDT doesn't have the money to cover it and the city doesn't have the money to cover it," Rice said. "I'm always concerned until everything is figured out."
A meeting is scheduled for early October to try to resolve the problem.
Hill County's portion amounts to about $500,000 of the $6 million it will take to upgrade storm drains in the overall $20 million project, Mick Johnson, Great Falls district director for MDT, said. The city of Havre has agreed to pay $3.4 million for its portion of the storm drain costs, with $2.1 million from state-allocated urban funds and $1.3 million officials say will probably be covered by a loan and increased water rates.
If the First Street reconstruction project moves forward, all of the road, sidewalks and substructure of the section of First Street that passes through Havre will be replaced.
County officials say they need to know what they will be charged and how they will pay before they sign the agreement city officials signed six weeks ago.
"It's not that we don't want to help, but I don't know how we can," Hill County Commissioner Mike Anderson said Wednesday.
"My response is the city, they assess people for drain service and we have no vehicle to assess people," Hill County Commission chair Kathy Bessette said.
Last year Morrison Maierle Inc., the designers of the project, surveyed the area to determine where water draining under First Street to the Milk River originates. That way the cost of the new drainage system could be split proportionally among the state, city and county. The state is responsible for paying to drain First Street and a block on either side, the city is responsible for the rest of the city, and the county for the drainage area outside the city limits.
In order to pay for the drainage costs, the county needs to know for starters who the landowners are in the county area, something it has not yet been told, Hill County Commissioner Doug Kaercher said today.
Johnson raised the issue of the storm drains at a quarterly state-local MDT meeting Wednesday. Johnson set the October meeting so the same officials can go over the particulars of the costs while looking at updated figures.
The county commissioners say they have two concerns: They are not convinced that all the costs assigned to the county really should be the county's, and they are not sure how to pay for it.
"At least send us something current so we can have a decent conversation," Anderson said.
The map the county was sent includes Havre city limits that date back before 1980 and assigns large portions of city land to the county.
County planner Clay Vincent said about half the area assigned to the county is now within the city limits.
Morrison Mairle vice president Brad Peterson said Wednesday that his company sent an updated map in June. The commissioners couldn't locate that map Wednesday, but Anderson said he recalls the county had problems with that version as well.
Vincent drew in the current city boundaries. What remained in the county portion were parcels northwest, south and east of the city limits. Vincent said about 12 property owners would be involved, including the city and Havre Public Schools.
Kaercher said that from what he's seen of the revised map, the city is the biggest landowner in the area. If the cost will fall on the city anyway, why go through the process of charging it to the county, he asked.
Vincent also pointed out that almost all the area is grassland and so probably does not produce any more runoff than it would have 1,000 years ago.
Kaercher said there's also a philosophical reason the landowners in the area shouldn't be asked to pay.
"These people own property that happens to drain through that area, and the city built in that drainage. So is it their fault that the city built there?" Kaercher asked. "How can we ask those people to pay for something they had no control over?"
Anderson said the county would be open to paying a portion of the costs.
"Obviously, if we can come to an agreement and it shows it would be appropriate for the county to kick in some money," the county will do that, he said.
But there's still the matter of how it would be done, Kaercher said. He said he believes the landowners would have to vote on the issue, and so county officials need to know who those landowners are in order to agree to anything.