Budget cuts leave a stink in rural Cascade County

As the old adage goes:

What goes up, must come down. 

What goes in, must come out. 

And what comes out, must be disposed of properly so it doesn’t contaminate my drinking water.

At least, I think that’s how my grandpa used to say it.

In Simms, like many rural communities around Montana, what comes out goes into a lagoon to get cleaned up. And like many of these wastewater lagoons, the one in Simms, built in 1979, is leaking — at 10 times the allowable rate.

Cascade County, Montana, Simms, Sewer, Water, Infrastructure, Budget Cuts, Rural Montana

The Sun River, flowing through Simms, Montana.

It’s not contaminating local drinking water — not yet — but it needs to be fixed: At some point, the community has to drain the lagoon, remove sludge, re-configure the site and re-line it with a new membrane, which is a multi-million dollar project.

Unfortunately, there was a pretty big setback late last year. On December 12, the Simms County Sewer District got a letter saying that the state could no longer provide the $750,000 promised months earlier to help pay for this project.

In a single letter, folks in Simms — in Cascade County, about 35 miles from Great Falls — lost nearly half of the money they needed to fix their sewer system.

“We’ve been working as diligently and as hard as we could,” said Jeff Carlisle, who chairs the sewer board.

The sewer district is attempting to fix the problem now before a bigger issue arises that could contaminate their drinking water and cost more money in a community where most residents rely on shallow wells, according to Simms’ grant application to the Treasure State Endowment Program, which funds these kinds of projects across the state.

But now the project is on hold, and the clock is ticking.

ABOUT THAT MONEY YOU THOUGHT YOU HAD

Most rural communities cannot afford an upgrade like that. That’s why the Treasure State Endowment Program exists. The money comes from the tax on coal production, with the interest  divided among rural communities to pay for drinking water upgrades, sewer and wastewater systems, and bridge repairs.

The real kicker here is that Simms Sewer thought it had the $750,000 secured.

Well, it wasn’t.

Cascade County, Montana, Simms, Sewer, Water, Infrastructure, Budget Cuts, Rural Montana

When our state’s revenues came in last year lower than optimistically projected, many of our representatives chose to make some pretty big cuts. At the Legislature’s Special Session in November, they cut public assistance offices in many small communities , essential services for folks with disabilities, and funding for rural infrastructure. Our legislators proudly said they fixed the budget crisis without raising taxes. But now, rural Montana is left to foot the bill. Thirteen rural communities across the state that were promised money for their local projects will no longer get that funding because of these cuts.

What will Simms, and those other communities, do now that they’re left out to dry?

Simms Sewer already spent reserve funds to finish the first part of the wastewater project, and the town doesn’t want to ask for yet another levy from their 354 community members, especially when they’re already planning to increase rates after the project is completed.

“The issue is that in Simms, because we’re not an incorporated town, we don’t have revenues coming in. And 65 percent of people are below the median income. So it’s hard to ask people for a levy to generate the funds,” said Carlisle. “Without [grants], it’s just not going to work to spend that extra money and ask the taxpayers to pay for it.”

But Carlisle remains hopeful, and right now the plan in Simms is to wait and see.

“I’m confident it will come through,” said Carlisle. “I’m looking at it like we haven’t lost it, we’re just waiting.”

Realistically, they’ll probably be waiting till at least next year.

FIXES AREN’T GETTING ANY CHEAPER

Dustin Nett, the engineer with TD&H Engineering, the firm that’s been behind the project from the beginning, has worked on dozens of similar upgrades to lagoons throughout the state. Nett confirmed that the project is at a bit of a standstill. Much of the other funding sources, like a Rural Development Loan, hinged upon this $750,000 grant.

Perhaps the hardest part about this situation — besides the fact that Simms Sewer thought that the money was in the bank, so to speak — is that the community maintained the system ahead of schedule and did everything else right before still losing the funding at the last minute.

Cascade County, Montana, Simms, Sewer, Water, Infrastructure, Budget Cuts, Rural Montana

Cascade County, Montana.

Also in Cascade County, the town of Cascade experienced similar shock. They, too, were promised grant money through the same program to help fix their wastewater system. And they, too, received notice in December that their money would no longer come.

Cascade Mayor Murry Moore applied for a $500,000 grant because the town was spending excessive time, money, and manpower to fix and clean blockages in their sewer system. On multiple occasions, wastewater had backed up and spilled out onto the streets and into people’s homes. They’ll also have to come up with another plan of action as they wait for more funding sources.

When they cut the budget at the Special Session, our Republican-led Legislature fell short on holding up their end of the bargain to help protect the health and well-being of Montanans, and now communities like Simms and Cascade will have to bear the burden.

Gov. Steve Bullock plans to make projects that are now on hold a priority next year, though ultimately that’s up to the Legislature when it meets in 2019.

In the meantime, people in these two Cascade County communities are left with leaky lagoons and sub-par sewer systems that will only get more and more expensive to fix as time goes on.

-Amanda Garant

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