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Councilman questions Vibrant Futures program

Havre City Council voted Monday night to save their decision on whether to join the Vibrant Futures Consortium for a future meeting.

Eryn Nissen, information and outreach manager for Opportunity Link Inc. 's Sustainable Communities initiatives, and Deborah Kottel, Vibrant Futures coordinator and former Democratic state representative from Great Falls, spoke to council about the benefits of joining the consortium, set up this year to help communities coordinate their planning, "for thinking like a region, " as Kottel put it.

"A vibrant sustainable Havre is dependent on a strong sustainable region, " Kottel said.

The pair explained how the consortium would bring together representatives from 11 counties, from Glacier to Phillips to Judith Basin, including city, county and tribal governments, to figure out who is doing what, what people want to do and how to do it.

Nissen explained that the $1.5 million grant will, over the next three years, be used to facilitate these conversations and provide members with access to seminars and webinars that can even provide continuing education credit.

Membership in the consortium would earn the communities extra points when applying for federal grants from Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation.

The money will also be used to gather and validate data, including more advanced geographical survey data leading to three-dimensional "smart maps" and government statistics.

Nissen said Monday morning that one federal database she's seen claimed that most Fort Benton residents come to Havre for health care. She's not sure that's correct.

Even though joining the initiative would cost the city nothing and imposes no obligations, the funds coming from the federal government made a few council members skeptical, mostly freshman council member Rick Dow.

Dow expressed his concerns about the unadvertised effects of what he sees as "central planning, " and whether, if Havre joins, there is a way out.

"Is there an exit strategy? " Dow said. "Or is this umbrella of federal oversight always going to be here? "

Kottel said that there is

no compulsion involved here, that membership is voluntary. And members don't have to apply for any grants or take any government money. But if they want to, the consortium is there to help coordinate with other communities that might have similar needs and with government agencies that can help with those needs.

Fellow council newcomer Brian Barrows asked about a list of initiatives in the consortium's packet and whether initiatives or principles were going to come down from outside the region, while Dow questioned whether "principles from above are more important than the old profit/loss principles. "

Nissen said those listed "were examples of … projects already filed" elsewhere, and that all of the ideas and initiatives pursued among the consortium would come from public meetings and the local governments themselves.

No one is forcing local governments to do anything or telling them what to do, Kottel said. The consortium exists to help "reduce redundancy and coordinate with neighbors, " he added, so governments can make smart pro-active planning decisions, rather than reacting to each problem as they run into them.

Council voted to table the discussion until its meeting on June 18, so they can investigate more and ask the coordinators more specific questions.


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