Federal spending bill restores essential payments to Missoula, other Montana counties

Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss and Gov. Steve Bullock stand on a road in Frenchtown to discuss infrastructure needs during a recent tour. The new federal spending bill restores funding for some programs needed by the county for road maintenance. (Missoula Current file photo)

Funding to compensate timbered counties in western Montana for lost production was restored in the federal spending bill passed by Congress, enabling Missoula County to eye programs it axed as recently as last year.

Missoula County on Friday said the restored funding from Secure Rural Schools, or SRS, will help maintain county roads and fund elements under the Resource Advisory Council in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service.

“This is money that we had to cut out of the public works budget,” said Commissioner Jean Curtiss. “It was about $400,000. In the past, we’d use that to pay for debt service to buy new road graders, but because we were short of money, we pulled back on dust abatement, for example.”

The renewal of SRS is part of the $1.3 trillion federal spending bill signed into law on Friday. It funds SRS nationally at around $465 million over two years and includes $530 million for one year in Payments in Lieu of Taxes, which also benefit most western Montana counties.

According to the Montana Association of Counties, the measure also includes around $380 million for election equipment upgrades. County leaders across the state were still racing Friday to understand the spending bill’s inclusions and what it means on the ground.

Sen. Jon Tester praised the restoration of SRS funding.

“These dollars will ensure that rural counties across Montana can pay for essential services like schools and roads,” Tester said. “Congress passed SRS way back in 2000 to compensate forested counties with federal land for lost revenue due to declining timber production. Yet the initiative expired in 2015 and we’d yet to receive a reauthorization, leaving forested counties in limbo.”

When SRS expired in 2015, payments to qualified counties in Montana fell from $18.1 million to about $2.4 million a year. That served a devastating financial blow to many counties, including Missoula, which lost around $400,000 in revenue and forced commissioners to make what they called “significant reductions in personnel and operating costs.”

In a letter to Montana’s delegation, commissioners said that while federal funding has fallen, the demand for local services has stayed the same. That need was amplified after last year’s fire season.

“Missoula County uses SRS funds to help offset the costs of fuel mitigation efforts incurred by landowners in the wildland-urban interface adjacent to federal lands,” commissioners wrote. “Being able to reduce fuels near homes and roads is critical to successful and safe firefighting efforts.”

Reauthorizing SRS will restore funding back to 2015 levels, providing more certainty to Montana counties as they plan for essential services, including schools and roads.

“This provision makes our counties whole for the past two years,” said Sen. Steve Daines. “That’s $25 million to Montana counties for their schools and roads.

“The long-term solution is to get back to basic forest management so that our forested counties can receive the revenue back off our national forests to fund our counties. In the meantime, we have SRS to keep that promise.”