Water, sewer improvements needed in Cascade County; groups ask for CDBG consideration

Water and sewer infrastructure was the overwhelming need in Cascade County during a public hearing on the county’s Community Development Block Grant program this week.

The downside is the county currently has a water and sewer project going under CDBG and rules from the Department of Commerce only allow counties to have one project in each category at a time.

The Simms Sewer District received a $450,000 CDBG grant last year.

Simms receives $450,000 grant for sewer system improvements through CDBG program

The county also has a project in the housing category with the South Wind Water and Sewer District, but that project is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

The county is eligible for CDBG funds in the economic development category, according to Mary Embleton, county budget officer, but it has to be for a specific project proposal.

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Brett Doney of the Great Falls Development Authority spoke in support of using CDBG funds for economic development efforts but did not provide any specific project ideas.

He said a need in Cascade County is for more jobs with wages in the $25,000 to $50,000 range.

Doney said that in 2016, the county lagged 9 percent behind the state in that category but that gap is now just 1 percent and the goal is to close the gap.

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That’s the area of greatest need in economic development, Doney said, because otherwise people making low wages turn to government services to help support themselves and their families versus buying homes and spending money in the community.

Black Eagle and Vaughn communities are in need of major water and sewer upgrades but lack funding.

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Sarah Peck with the Black Eagle Water and Sewer District said they’ve applied for some grants for upgrade but they typically want a transition to metered system.

“We need a feasibility study to say it’s not feasible,” Peck told commissioners. “We’d never recoup the cost.”

Peck asked commissioners to consider CDBG funding for that feasibility study since the 1960s era Black Eagle system has 479 accounts with flat rates for residential service. They do have metered rates for commercial users. The Black Eagle system buys its water from the city and sewer is sent to the city system, she said.

Peck said they estimate $1,000 to $1,500 per tap to meter residential users and they’d need to update equipment and change billing systems, racking up a hefty cost.

She said that if they went to the metered system, rates would increase significantly and residents wouldn’t water their lawns, which would contribute to decay of the community.

Annette Kniffen of the Vaughn Water and Sewer District told commissioner that the Vaughn system’s water storage tank is undersized by about 150,000 gallons and hydrants throughout the system are inoperable since most gate valves and other improvements are needed in the aging system.

“With minimal storage capacity and inoperable fire hydrants, our community is in danger of not having enough water or the ability to fight a major fire should one occur,” she said.

The Vaughn community is eligible for CDBG funding since the population is 55 percent low and moderate income, Kniffen said, and as a result of the project, water and sewer rates combined would be $118 monthly, or 126 percent of the target rate set by the Montana Department of Commerce to determine an applicant’s financial need for CDBG funding.

Kniffen asked commissioners to consider the Vaughn project for a CDBG application.

Sarah Converse, director of Sweetgrass Development, told commissioners that there are many water and sewer districts that are unable to apply for CDBG funding because of the rule restricting counties to one project per category at a time.

Commissioner Joe Briggs said that’s not a statutory requirement but is an internal policy at the Montana Department of Commerce.

Converse said she recently spoke to staff at Commerce in the CDBG program who said the best approach to changing the one per category rule would be to submit comments when Commerce puts the funding plan out for public feedback. She said it would also be helpful to talk to legislators about the issue to have them put pressure on Commerce to reevaluate the rule.