HELENA - Missoula County commissioners aren't alone in questioning Gov. Brian Schweitzer's conditions for receiving held-up stimulus money. Schweitzer also is asking House Republicans who voted against a pair of stimulus bills in 2009 to write him a letter saying they now support the use of one-time-only state money for grants to their communities.
But Rep. Lee Randall, R-Broadus, said he won't be sending any such letter to the Democratic governor. Instead, Randall said he will spearhead a private community fundraising effort, if necessary, to come up with the money for Broadus to renovate its town hall.
Citing state budget concerns when tax collections dropped, the Schweitzer administration in January froze 50 local grants totaling $3.5 million statewide, including a request from Broadus for nearly $16,000.
Peggy Fruit, Broadus clerk and treasurer, said the project, expected to cost $20,000 to $25,000, would create more office space for local officials and make the building more energy efficient.
"We've already started our project," Fruit said. "We're going to complete our project. If we have to pay for it ourselves, we will."
Much as he did in Missoula and other western Montana communities on Monday, Schweitzer went to Broadus last week and presented local officials with a letter saying that for his office to proceed with the grant, he needed three letters: one from community members and leaders saying they support use of one-time-only state money for the project; one from Randall saying he now supports using one-time-only state funding the project; and one confirming that local officials "support the use of coal money" for the completion of the project." The latter refers to the state Land Board's recent decision to accept an $86 million upfront bid to lease Otter Creek coal for the right to develop it over 10 years.
"I feel like he's trying to play games with me," Randall said this week. "I voted against (stimulus measures) House Joint Resolution 12 and House Bill 645 because I didn't feel that putting our nation deeper into debt was the right thing to do. I'm not going to be a hypocrite (now) and say that I support them."
Randall accused Schweitzer of "really putting the bull's-eye on everyone who voted against the stimulus bill and the Republican Party to make us look like hypocrites."
"He's termed out and he no longer has any accountability to the voters," Randall said. "He's going around hitting the hornet's nest, that's what he's doing."
Schweitzer's said he's doing nothing of the kind. He said he's only requiring letters from legislators who voted against two stimulus measures. Only the House voted on both bills; the Senate voted on one.
Asked what would happen to the grants in communities where House Republicans opposed the stimulus measures and refused to write letters, Schweitzer said, "That's a discussion they need to have in their community."
He said he's traveled to nine communities since last week to size up how much support the projects have from local officials and residents and to get a firsthand look at the projects, if possible, to help him decide which grants he will approve.
"First, you need to gauge community support," Schweitzer said. "What I heard in Broadus is they support the project and they'd get me those letters. ... The last thing I want to do is go into another community like Missoula where the community doesn't want it.
"If the community's against it, there's kind of a rule that you don't shove it down their throats."
He was referring to his visit with Missoula County officials on Monday where he said more than three dozen people, including a legislator and legislative candidate, came to oppose a $320,000 project to reconstruct the Big Flat Road.
Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss disputed Schweitzer's characterization of the meeting, saying only three people spoke against the project, although others in the audience asked questions.
"We have tons of support, all the letters and e-mail," Curtiss said.
She said the commissioners received more calls from people upset over Schweitzer trying to tie the release of the held-up grants to support for Otter Creek coal tract leases.
She said the commission's forthcoming letter to Schweitzer likely will express its support for the road project but say nothing about the coal.
Schweitzer told officials in Missoula he doesn't want any community to use coal money that doesn't want to use coal money.
"Our biggest issue is the Missoula County commissioners don't feel comfortable trying to build that nexus between (HB) 645 and Otter Creek," Curtiss said.
Curtiss said the county looks forward to proceeding with the road project, once it receives the grant.
"We feel that the Montana Legislature approved the funds for this money," Curtiss said. "We met all the criteria and deadlines. We were the only proposal asked to do an environmental assessment."
She said the county received a May 29, 2009, letter from the state Commerce Department director authorizing the local government to incur the costs.
"We've just been waiting for the contract," she said.
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.