Montana Legislature’s cuts leave 1,000 folks in Harlo out to dry
East of the Divide, every drop of water is precious.
So, if your town’s water pipes are breaking an average of twenty times each year, you give those pipes the attention they deserve, right?
Harlowton’s cast iron water pipes were constructed in the 1930s, and they are in desperate need of replacement. Between 2011 and 2013, there were 62 recorded breaks, and the pipes continue to fail dozens of times each year. To this day, 30 to 40 percent of the town’s water is unaccounted for.
Harlo’s local government has been working for nearly 10 years to upgrade their water system for the 1,000 folks who live there. They’ve been doing it right — upgrading a little bit every few years and applying for state support so they don’t burden folks with higher taxes or huge rate increases. They’ve already replaced the water tank and the pump station, but there are still 19,000 feet of deteriorated, undersized pipe left.
Jeff Sell was the mayor of Harlowton for eight years, and he led the charge on a lot of these upgrades. This next phase of the project, according to Sell, was set to update some really critical lines along Central Avenue and Highway 12.
“The water lines now are so old and in such poor disrepair,” said Sell. “Our water lines are leaking constantly.”
Like Simms and Cascade, folks in Harlowton were awarded a $750,000 grant from the Treasure State Endowment Program to help them pay for the next leg of this multi-million dollar project. And like their fellow Montanans to the north, Harlowton also had this money taken away in December.
Last year, amid our state budget crisis, our Legislature couldn’t manage to find a solution that raised revenues and took advantage of the economic booms happening in Bozeman, Missoula, and the Flathead. Instead, our elected representatives made huge cuts across rural Montana, and towns like Harlowton, Simms, and Cascade are bearing the weight.
Without the funding from the Treasure State Endowment Program, Harlowton will not be able to fix its water pipes as expected. The pipes will continue to break, and the town will continue to lose some of its precious drinking water. And that’s a big problem, especially if the drought across central and eastern Montana continues.
Folks in Harlowton understand the time crunch they’re in. On May 24, 2017, Sell received a letter saying that they’d been awarded the $750,000 state grant. So they broke ground and started construction. Seven months later, when they received the news that they actually weren’t going to get the funding, there was a problem. Harlowton had already spent $80,000 on the project, assuming they would be paid by the state.
“We did just what we were told to do,” said Sell.
Sell hopes that the state will at least cover the costs that the town has already incurred, but that’s yet to be determined.
As if the leaks and the debt weren’t problem enough, Harlowton has a particularly unique situation: There is a fuel plume sitting on top of the water table. This has the potential to be very, very bad. If fuel seeps into the leaky, vulnerable pipes, it could contaminate the drinking water for 1,000 people.
If anything could put a fire under the feet of our Legislature, you would think it would be the risk of free and dissolved phase petroleum hydrocarbons getting into the drinking water. But they couldn’t feel the burn, and their cuts have put Harlowton’s infrastructure project in limbo.
What is the town of Harlowton to do now? They could continue the project as planned, but then they’d have to increase the taxes for folks with a median household income of $23,750, even though the Legislature promised they wouldn’t increase taxes. They could apply for a loan instead, but then they would have to increase utility rates by a lot more than promised. They could wait two years until the next grant cycle, and just hope nothing bad happens in the meantime. After all, the governor’s office intends to prioritize funding for the thirteen rural communities that lost their grant money in December.
Mayor Paul Otten, who took office in January, reiterated the current predicament and confusion that the town is feeling. There is a lot of mixed information coming down the pipe, and Otten hopes to learn more soon about other funding options that are available.
“Some people are saying yes [we’ll get the money] and some people are saying no. It’s kind of hard to figure what’s going to happen until it does happen,” said Otten.
They hope to still replace a portion of the lines on Main Street as well as some of the side streets, but most of the lines will have to wait.
“With the funding cuts from the state this year, it’s going to be tough to finish the water project we’ve planned,” said Otten.
Realistically, Harlowton won’t get the $750,000 that the Legislature took away. Meanwhile, the hardworking folks in Harlo will continue to live their lives, raise their families, and do their jobs. They’re keeping up their end of the bargain. Now the state just has to do the same.
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