SIDNEY – Out in the epicenter of the oil and gas boom, communities are growing so quickly they can’t keep up with basic infrastructure needs such as water and sewage treatment facilities, housing, and roads and bridges.
Upgrading water and sewage treatment plants is the most pressing need in Sidney, public works director Jeff Hintz says. It may cost up to $18 million for the wastewater plant, $17 million for the water treatment plant and $3 million to replace the water storage tank.
Yet local officials say they haven’t received much help from state government.
“So we’ve got to get some sort of a revenue stream coming into the cities that are impacted,” Hintz said. “I don’t see why we can’t get a piece of what the state is taking out of us.”
Money for infrastructure – sewer and water systems, school upgrades, roads, broadband and more – will be front-and-center at the 2015 Montana Legislature, which convenes in January.
Gov. Steve Bullock is proposing a $336 million package of building projects, for all across the state.
But any conversation about infrastructure seems to start and end with eastern Montana, where cities, towns and counties are grappling with explosive growth, as workers flock to the region for jobs fueled by development in the Bakken oil formation along the Montana-North Dakota border.
Bullock’s plan includes $45 million for projects in eastern Montana. Out here in oil country, most folks say that’s not enough.
“Sidney could use (almost) twice that tomorrow,” says incoming House Speaker Austin Knudsen, R-Culbertson, which is just north of Sidney.
Mike Newton, operations manager in Glendive for Fisher Sand and Gravel, says he’s glad Bullock recognizes the need, but that $100 million is more realistic than $45 million.
Glendive needs a new school, he said. The last new school was built there in 1958.
“The city has borrowed money and bonded and got grants for the Glendive water and resource recovery system,” Newton says. “The city of Glendive doesn’t have a lot of money. West Glendive needs to be tied into this plant as well.”
Eastern Montana lawmakers say they’ll probably have some of their own proposals to deal with the problem, but haven’t decided what approach to take.
Local officials, however, say the help can’t come soon enough.
Richland County, in Montana’s northeastern corner, has the lowest unemployment rate it’s had in some time, says Leslie Messer, executive director of the Richland County Economic Corp.
“Any able person who’s able to work is working,” she said, and “there are a lot of brand new faces in town.”
This influx is putting a lot of pressure on law enforcement, mental health services, health services and infrastructure such as water, sewage treatment, roads and schools.
But infrastructure is the most pressing need, she says, to help accommodate more housing, hotels and other businesses.
“The investments that are going to be made out here are going to be investments for the entire state to improve,” Messer says. “We have companies that will locate in Montana instead of North Dakota, if we had the infrastructure.”
The housing shortage has pushed the average rent for newer multifamily units to $1,800 to $2,400 a month for two- or three-bedroom apartments, she says.
“We need to find the happy medium where the teacher, the bus driver, the sales clerk at J.C. Penney can afford to pay rent in a nice apartment,” Messer says. “That is not here at this point in time because of the demand.”
In North Dakota, state and local governments are making major investments in housing, infrastructure, workforce and law enforcement, in part because the state has both state and local sales taxes, Messer said. Montana has neither.
The same infrastructure needs are occurring throughout the oil and gas counties, says Newton, the contractor, with Culbertson, Bainville and Savage needing water and sewage upgrades and school improvements.
“They just can’t handle the influx,” Newton says. “The schools are overcrowded.”
McCone County Commissioner Connie Eissinger says the infrastructure needs are mounting in her county, too.
The county’s sewage holding system has been updated, but now the water and sewer lines need to be updated and replaced, Eissinger says. Streets need to be paved, and the county also needs a retirement home.
Voters rejected a bond issue a few years ago to put an annex on the courthouse to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The local health center needs to expand for emergency services and some existing services.
“There is always infrastructure that needs to be updated,” Eissinger says. “It’s a little hard when we don’t have anything other than the farming and ranching community and business people to provide the taxes we need. No railroad goes through here anymore and there’s no pipeline yet.”
Yet while eastern Montana faces pressing needs, state Democratic lawmakers are saying that many of the same needs are in communities across the state.
House Minority Leader Chuck Hunter, D-Helena, also notes that while eastern Montana communities have been hard hit by development, they are paying some of lowest property-tax rates in the state, because oil tax revenue is used to cover school and county expenses already.
“You have to build a system that recognizes the acute needs in eastern Montana, and that it also has to be part of the solution,” he says. “Rather than just being bailed out by the rest of the state, they need to recognize that they need to be part of the solution locally.”
Hintz, the public works director in Sidney, says people locally already are paying the “Bakken premium” of higher prices for almost everything, because of the boom and accompanying shortages. He says the Legislature should consider allotting more oil-and-gas tax revenue to cities in oil country, or creating other revenue streams.
Last month, the Montana Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers rated Montana’s infrastructure and concluded: “Montana’s aging infrastructure is approaching a critical state of disrepair. In this 2014 Report Card for Montana’s Infrastructure, it earned a mediocre cumulative grade of C-minus.”
Here’s the breakdown in the grade by topic: solid waste, B-minus; transit, C-plus; transportation, C; irrigation and water canals, C; drinking water, C-minus; dams, C-minus; wastewater, D-plus; and schools, D-minus.