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Missoula officials, state leaders oppose statistical change to ‘metropolitan’ areas

While new Census figures are expected in April, Missoula’s estimated population sits at around 74,000 people. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current file photo)

Several Montana cities including Missoula could lose out on federal funding if the Office of Management and Budget succeeds in changing what qualifies as a metropolitan statistical area in the U.S.

The proposal, released earlier this week, would increase the population threshold from 50,000 to 100,000 for a city to qualify as a metropolitan area. That could remove Missoula from the list, as well as Great Falls, forcing them to relinquish millions of dollars in federal funding, including revenue targeted for housing.

While new Census figures are expected in April, Missoula’s estimated population sits at around 74,000 while Great Falls is at 59,000. With around 48,000 residents, Bozeman doesn’t yet qualify as a metropolitan area, though the city has been planning to cross the 50,000 threshold for years.

“This would really affect our city in terms of its ability to access Community Development Block Grant funds, and I hope it doesn’t come to pass,” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick.

Nationally, around 144 cities stand to lose the designation if the proposal passes. Leaders in Corvallis, Oregon, said losing the designation could impact business recruitment, as well as Oregon State University.

Along with Missoula, the city of Bismark would be dropped from the list, along with Grand Forks, Michigan, and Opelike, Alabama, where the mayor fears losing funding that pays for vital community services.

“I would hope the government would be a bit more nuanced and not say. ‘Here’s a population level but rather, consider population levels in cities in different states,” Slotnick said. “In Montana, Missoula is a metropolitan area. The same size city would not be a metro area in Ohio, California or Texas. The one size fits all doesn’t work.”

Both Sens. Jon Tester and Steve Daines have risen in opposition to the proposal, which would reclassify Missoula, Great Falls and 142 other cities as “micropolitan” areas – a downgrade from their current status.

In a letter to the Office of Management and Budget, Daines described Great Falls as major agricultural and service hub for north central Montana. He described Missoula as major financial and academic center that has grown substantially.

He also noted that Bozeman is among the fastest growing cities in the country and is on the cusp of becoming a metropolitan area under the current 50,000 population threshold.

“The implications of this shift would be significant, as up to half of the federal funding these cities normally receive would be redirected,” Daines said. “I urge you to not adopt this change and carefully consider what effect this will have on communities that are metropolitan centers by all reasonable measure.”

While the change in classification could have impacts on funding earmarked for housing and other services, Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier doesn’t believe it would impact transportation funding.

“This would not likely impact our Metropolitan Planning Organization area that is the recipient of federal transportation funding,” he said. “That was a concern at one point in the past, but as near as I can tell and the MPO can tell, it wouldn’t impact that entity. But it would have significant impacts on the city.”