Signs point toward the town of Ismay off U.S. Highway 12 in eastern Montana. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

ISMAY — Tens of millions of dollars of COVID-19 relief money allocated by the federal government under the March American Rescue Plan Act has flowed to Montana towns and cities, funding intended to patch up pandemic-strained budgets and support water and sewer infrastructure investments.

One eastern Montana town, where the 2020 census tallied 17 residents, has responded with a polite no thank you.

“We don’t really need it for anything, so it might as well go to someone who can use it,” longtime Ismay Mayor Gene Nemitz said in an interview this week.

Ismay, the smallest incorporated municipality in the state, was slated to receive $4,853.35 from the local government relief program, which has allocated much larger sums to more populous cities: $15.9 million to Billings, population 117,000, for example, and $2.1 million to Miles City, which has about 8,400 residents. In all, Montana municipalities have been allocated $86.4 million.

The relief amounts specific to incorporated cities and towns were calculated by the U.S. Treasury based on population. Cities with 50,000-plus people are receiving money directly from the federal government, while payments to smaller towns and cities are being routed through state government. An initial round of payments went out in June, with a second round expected next year.

“Really, we don’t have much other than a couple street lights that stay lit.”

Ismay Mayor Gene Nemitz

Montana counties also got their own relief allocations, totalling $208 million, as have tribes and  the state government — the latter of which is putting hundreds of millions of dollars of its relief money toward a separate local government infrastructure grant program.

The relief funds come with a specific set of allowable uses. Government entities can spend the money on COVID-related public health work and efforts to address the pandemic’s economic impact, but can’t use the money to fund pension programs or tax cuts. Local governments can also patch up their budgets where revenues have declined as a result of the pandemic or invest the money in water, sewer or broadband internet projects.

Local governments can, for example, use their direct allocation to meet a local-matching-funds requirement for the state infrastructure grant program.

The challenge for Ismay, Nemitz said, is that its bare-bones town government doesn’t offer services that fit in those categories. There’s no municipal water or sewer system, he said, just a few gravel streets the town looks after.

“Really, we don’t have much other than a couple street lights that stay lit,” Nemitz said.

As a result, Ismay’s leaders have informed the state that it will turn down its allocation. An email exchange between the state Department of Administration and Ismay town clerk Barbara Simonsen in late July indicates the town will return its initial installment.

Ismay, located east of Miles City, consists of a grain silo, post office, church and community hall nestled alongside a few houses. It’s six miles from the nearest paved road, U.S. Highway 12, in a stretch of Montana so sparsely populated that small signs along the highway list the names of individual property owners.

The Joe Montana Center in Ismay, the town that once renamed itself Joe, Montana after the NFL quarterback. Credit: Eric Dietrich / MTFP

Ismay is probably best known for the stint in the 1990s when its residents voted to rename the town Joe, Montana after the NFL quarterback — a publicity stunt instigated by a Kansas City radio station. 

That episode ultimately produced a modest infusion of infrastructure funding that didn’t involve the U.S. Treasury. By selling T-shirts and other novelty items, locals were able to raise enough money to repair a fire truck and build the community hall, the Joe Montana Center, which does double duty as a fire station.

The Joe Montana Center is starting to show some external wear these days — the last “a” in Montana on its sign was missing when a reporter photographed it in late July. Nemitz, though, said that’s not a money issue, and that the community has enough to keep the center maintained in an account funded mostly by donations.

“Really we’re doing all right. We don’t need a lot,” he said. “So there’s no sense in taking money we don’t need.”

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This story is published by Montana Free Press as part of the Long Streets Project, which explores Montana’s economy with in-depth reporting. This work is supported in part by a grant from the Greater Montana Foundation, which encourages communication on issues, trends, and values of importance to Montanans. Discuss MTFP’s Long Streets work with Lead Reporter Eric Dietrich at edietrich@montanafreepress.org.

Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. His reporting focuses broadly on Montana’s governance and economic opportunity, with particular focus on the state budget and tax policy. He also contributes data reporting across the MTFP newsroom. Before joining the MTFP staff in 2019, he worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network and also earned an engineering degree from Montana State University. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 2, and follow him on Twitter.