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HELENA — An initial round of funding drawn from Montana’s share of the March federal coronavirus relief bill is heading toward 86 water and sewer projects around the state. 

The awards, totalling nearly $127 million, were formally announced Thursday by Gov. Greg Gianforte. They follow an allocation process that was outlined by the Montana Legislature this spring in which project applications were submitted by local government entities, ranked by staff at the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and reviewed by an advisory committee last month.

“Montana is leading the nation in making critical water and sewer infrastructure investments, with more than 80-percent of them supporting our rural communities,” Gianforte said in a statement. “With funds devoted toward constructing new systems and improving existing ones, more Montana communities will have access to reliable, sustainable water and wastewater systems.”

The money comes from the American Rescue Plan Act, which was championed by Democrats including Montana Sen. Jon Tester as a stimulus measure intended to pull the nation’s economy through the COVID-19 pandemic. When it passed, the act was criticized by Gianforte and other Montana Republicans as unnecessary spending that would drive up the national debt. 

Gianforte, for example, called the bill a “Fiscally irresponsible progressive wish list” in a March tweet from his official account. His office has since said he’s committed to ensuring that Montana’s relief money is put toward effective long-term investments.

In all, the act has allocated Montana’s state government more than $2 billion in COVID relief funds, including nearly $1 billion in flexible money for patching up pandemic-related budget shortfalls or, alternatively, investing in infrastructure. Montana’s GOP-controlled Legislature chose to allocate much of the flexible money, $463 million, to water and sewer projects — the remainder of which will be directed to specific projects at a later date. Another $275 million has been earmarked for expanding broadband connectivity.

The funds awarded this week include a combination of minimum-allocation grants available to any entity that applied, as well as up to $2 million per project awarded on a competitive basis. The awards are separate from the stimulus dollars previously distributed as direct aid to towns, cities, counties and tribal governments.

The top-ranked competitive project in the awards announced this week is $235,000 to help fund a $470,000 upgrade to the drinking water supply at Montana City School, south of Helena, where arsenic removal units are necessary to meet Safe Drinking Water Act standards.

Second on the state’s priority list is a $2 million grant to help the town of Darby, south of Hamilton, complete a $3 million project to upgrade its sewage lagoon to reduce the amount of contamination the town discharges into the Bitterroot River.

Gianforte also said Friday that the state is putting $6 million from a different pot of ARPA money toward workforce training efforts. Of that, $2 million will go to hire additional staff on a fixed-term basis for Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services programs that help people with disabilities find and maintain employment, and $4 million will augment Department of Labor & Industry programs that help out-of-work Montanans retrain for new career paths. 

A full list of the infrastructure project grants award is available at arpa-mtdnrc.hub.arcgis.com/pages/project-applications. A dashboard detailing the state’s overall ARPA spending to date is available at mtdnrc.maps.arcgis.com/apps/dashboards/3cdd3a8f8b1d47deb5003a04820efb96

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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 came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.