A legislative panel on Thursday recommended more than $125 million in federal COVID relief money to be awarded as grants for water and wastewater projects across the state, although a final determination on the funding still rests with Gov. Greg Gianforte.
The money is part of more than $2 billion Montana received through the American Rescue Plan Act, passed by Congress in March to offset some of the economic impacts of the pandemic. The state is receiving its money in two rounds, and the ARPA Infrastructure Advisory Commission is expected to award another round of water and wastewater grants next year.
The commission’s decision followed months of work by state officials to vet and rank more than 300 grant applications from local governments, state agencies and other public entities, which collectively requested more than $900 million from the program. Made up of lawmakers and administration officials, the panel is one of four established by the Legislature last session to oversee the distribution of nearly $1 billion in ARPA money.
The panel considered four scenarios presented by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which proposed total funding levels of $100 million or $125 million, and caps on individual grants of $2 million or $25 million. Under the panel’s recommendation on Thursday, the top 74 projects under those rankings would win funding, but only up to $2 million per project – meaning that many will only receive a portion of what they requested.
Had the $25 million cap been recommended, 33 projects would have received funding. A total of 241 applications were deemed eligible under the federal guidelines for the water and wastewater grants.
Given the bipartisan infrastructure bill currently making its way through Congress, however, the panel’s recommendation came with a caveat: Grants for regional water projects included in those 74 top-ranked projects won’t be awarded until more clarity is available on whether they would qualify to have their projects funded by the federal bill. The commission’s chair, Rep. Dan Bartel, R-Lewistown, suggested that determination could be made in the coming months. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., recently said the state stands to receive more than $3 billion from the infrastructure bill.
Rep. Sue Vinton, a Billings Republican, clarified after the commission’s meeting that if those regional water projects are able to secure funding through the infrastructure bill, the leftover ARPA money recommended by the commission would flow to the next grant applications on the list, according to their rankings.
The commission also recommended awarding $5.8 million in minimum allocation grants to counties and municipalities for water and wastewater infrastructure projects. Those grant amounts are determined by a funding formula, but local governments must still show that they will be spent on projects eligible under federal guidelines.
Unlike the competitive grants, the minimum allocation grants will continue to be applied for and awarded on a rolling basis, with a total of $150 million available in the program.
More information on the grant programs, including the state's rankings and descriptions of the individual applications, can be found at arpa.mt.gov.