Community leaders talk infrastructure needs, funding
Last updated 5/15/2018 at 11:37am
Community leaders and contractors from Havre hosted Daryl James, executive director of the Montana Infrastructure Coalition, for a discussion on Havre's infrastructure needs Tuesday at Havre City Hall, before taking a tour of the Bullhook project and other sites in Havre's downtown area to show the city's aging infrastructure.
The stop in Havre is part of several that representatives with the coalition are making across Montana as part of their Infrastructure Week tour.
The coalition is a group made up of 100 different member organizations that include architects, contractors, people in public finance, local governments and organized labor dedicated to finding funding solutions to meet the needs of Montana's deteriorating infrastructure, James said before the event.
He said the coalition began in 2015 after an infrastructure bill that would have partially been paid for through bonding fell a vote short of passage.
James said that, earlier in the day, he had been on the radio show Voices of Montana, where he was asked if he thought people understood the depth of Montana's infrastructure deficit.
"I said, 'They can see potholes, they can see storm drains that aren't working, but it's that buried infrastructure that they don't understand,'" he said.
Bear Paw Development Corp. Executive Director Paul Tuss said aging infrastructure can have an impact on the overall economic development of a community. He said that one of the first questions business owners looking to expand into a community often ask about is the quality of that community's bridges, roads, sewer and water infrastructure.
"These are foundational questions for economic development," he said.
Tyler Smith of Rock Solid Enterprises Inc. said that earlier this year a water line ruptured outside a small commercial development. Because the ground was frozen and the water had no place else to go, the water lifted the building slightly off the ground.
As a result of the break, one business in the complex - Bearly Square Quilting - had to vacate and move to another location. He said it will likely be months before they can move back in.
Havre Public Works Director Dave Peterson brought in a part of a rusted water line with a hole in it to show the condition of much of the city's water infrastructure.
"This is typical of probably 70 percent of the pipes in town," Peterson said.
He added that this winter the city had 10 to 15 water breaks.
Havre Mayor Tim Solomon said the city typically sees 30 breaks a year.
Peterson said Public Works used to be able to fix the pipes by applying repair bands to them, now they have to replace them.
Tuss said part of the problem is that the state does not invest much in infrastructure and right now any improvements have to be paid for through either rate increases or hikes in property taxes.
If the state was to pay for some of that, he said, it could soften the impact that consumers have to absorb for such hikes in fees and property taxes.
"It's pretty simple math, but I think sometimes it gets lost when it gets into the political gamesmanship in Helena," he said.
Tuss is also a candidate for a seat in the state Senate and will face the winner of the Republican primary that has Sen. Russ Tempel, R-Chester, and Havre businessman Brad Lotton facing off.
Lotton was at the meeting Monday.
The Legislature in 2015 and 2017 attempted to pass infrastructure bills that would authorize bonding to pay for at least some of the projects but the bills failed both years.
People at the meeting then took a walk to examine parts of the city's infrastructure walking down Sixth Avenue to a manhole near First Lutheran Church.
Shawn Solomon, CAD technician for Public Works opened up the manhole, revealing a sewer system that instead of walls of concrete had walls made of red brick.
"Those bricks will start to fall down there and form blockages in your sewer," Solomon said.
He added that the the sewer likely dated back to the 1920s. Modern sewers, he said, are made of concrete. The sewer is representative of others downtown and through the city's east end.
Sewers are replaced but only when they fail, Solomon said.
The city cannot act more proactively to replace them, Tim Solomon said.
A list of projects for storm drains, sewers and water infrastructure within the city does exist, but priorities change each year.
"So it's hard to ever get down that list," he said.
A part of the Bullhook drainage project was also looked at on the tour.
Solomon led the crowd to the area in front of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation office on Sixth Avenue, where a large portion of the street had caved in. Some metal grating was all that covered the hole as water flowed beneath.
Solomon said that the hole is one phase of the larger Bullhook Drainage project aimed at upgrading the storm drain beneath parts of the city.
The Bullhook drainage is a creek that starts at Saddle Butte and runs into the city on the south edge of Havre and winds through the city.
In October 2013 sections if the street and sidewalk above the drainage began collapsing, revealing the deterioration of the system.
The project is being funded with a $500,000 Treasure State Endowment Program, a loan and city funds.
Last year, Kinkaid Civil Construction of Mesa, Arizona, received a contract for the project in 2016. Kinkaid later pulled out of the project, and the company and city are now in arbitration about the contract.
Solomon said that the first phase of the project is just one part. He said a lot of silt needs to be cleared out of the system, and the gate of a dam at the head of the system needs to be repaired.
Lotton, owner of Lotton Construction, asked, since several attempts to pass an infrastructure bill have failed, if there was a better chance of getting projects funded if the Legislature took up funding for projects through several different bills rather than one.
Some lawmakers, he said, have voted against the larger bills because they include funding for some projects such as the renovation of Montana State University's Romney Hall- that he said are seen as lacking merit.
The process of getting an infrastructure bill that can pass is a political tug of war, James said. He said a lot of work has been done to try and convince what James called hard-core fiscal conservatives that bonding is a legitimate tool to fund infrastructure, especially with interest rates as low as they are.
He said that in the last legislative session, state Rep. Mike Cuffe, R-Eureka, proposed a bill included $30 million for wastewater projects, but did not include funding for Romney Hall and other projects that have been sticking points in past infrastructure bills.
However the bill fell short of the 67 needed to authorize state bonding.
James said that not enough Democrats backed the bill for it to pass.
Another bill that included funding for Romney Hall and other projects was later introduced in the Senate and also fell short of the votes needed to authorize bonding.
James said he thinks it is time to take a new approach.
"In my opinion, it is insanity to keep floating the same bonding bill, with all these projects," he said. "We have to do it differently."
The Legislature needs to decide what is going to be included in an infrastructure bonding bill and what other projects should be included in their own stand alone bills or through a public private partnership, James said.
In the 2019 legislative session, James said, he and his group will be working to maintain revenue to cities for police and fire services as well as basic infrastructure maintenance.
He said that his group will also have to push back against some talk of repealing an increase in the state's gas tax that passed in 2017.
House Bill 473 incrementally raises the state's gas tax by six cents over six years. The bill also increases the tax on specialty fuels by two cents and aviation fuels by four cents.
A portion of that money is then used to help fund city and county infrastructure projects that can provide matching funds.