Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney visits Red Lodge

Eleanor Guerrero
CCN Senior Reporter
Thursday, May 23, 2019
Article Image Alt Text

Photo by Eleanor Guerrero
Left to Right: Red Lodge Mayor Bill Larson, Lt. Governor Mike Cooney and Public Works Director Jim Bushnell survey a map of the Red Lodge stormwater system.

Lt. Governor Mike Cooney came to Red Lodge last week to deliver some good news for Red Lodge’s ailing infrastructure. 

“At the last legislature, we finally broke a logjam. We got some infrastructure funding. We’re really excited.”

He declared, “We know you have the stormwater system and it was installed in 1985.”  He noted, “The budget’s in good shape. We don’t have to go back and start wacking at these programs like a couple of years ago. It was painful, horrible. It probably put a lot of communities in a worse situation.”

Jim Bushnell, Red Lodge Public Works Director agreed. “We’ve had so much going into our sanitary system.”

Cooney was sympathetic, “Debris, things it’s not set up for same as Polson.”

Then he broke the good news. “The good thing is, there’s now money available. There were several bills in the last legislature signed by the governor and that brings together a pool of about $400 million into access. "This is for clean drinking water, wastewater, stormwater, bridges and buildings. We know a lot of communities have been struggling with infrastructure."

He got to the heart of it. “Infrastructures are big for communities. People are not going to move here if you don’t have a good school system, good medical care and don’t have good infrastructure. You’ve got a lot of good things going here and this is not a good thing. It’s a real liability to the city. So hopefully now we have these programs up we can get you doing what you need to do.”

Bushnell said, “We’re looking to have resort tax 1 percent go to our storm water deal. It is a 10-12 years project.” The total cost will be $13 million over ten years and they hope a combination of the resort tax portion and grants will cover it.

Larson explained, “We’re putting that into different phases. And we hope we can keep working on it. It’s a  strange project since we have to start at the end of it and work backwards. The grant will help tremendously. If we can do the 1 percent on the resort tax that will help tremendously.”

It was explained to the Lt. Governor that the resort tax and the use of a portion for the stormwater project was not a done deal. Larson said, “We’re working on resort tax renewal. With that extra one percent we’re going to put that on the ballot as a separate item.” 

Cooney was surprised. “Really-the community decides?”

James Caniglia, Red Lodge Community Development Director said, “That will result in around $270-290,000 which would obviously help us a lot.”

Cooney joked, “I’m delighted and I was very happy to pay my portion of the resort tax when I had lunch today. I know it’s going to a good cause.” Then he got serious. “So what is it going to take, when will you start putting shovels to dirt?”

Bushnell said it will take “probably a year.” They have a master plan with five phases. They will be getting the engineering done first. Phase One is a $2 million dollar project; it will bring pipe from outlet up to fifth street and will take about two years.

The city had hoped to do a whole street at a time, water and stormwater/sewer, but now it will be able to do half a street at a time. 

Larson said, "It's nice to have Jim with his history, we’ve been able to look at the numbers and reroute water and not go into the storm drain."

Caniglia noted, “We cut the cost by $2 million just by using detention ponds. I’m a big user of detention ponds.”

Cooney said Helena uses detention ponds. Caniglia said, “I would imagine. I don’t think most small towns like us do.”

The Lt. Governor said it’s been a long time since they’ve had an infrastructure package like this pass the Legislature. It is a combination of bonding and some cash. “Bonding is always a big issue," he said. "To this day I never understood that. Maybe down the road we can talk to people; these programs have been around for a long time.” 

He said they were pretty good at the time. He recalled, “It used to be $75,000 was a lot of money. Now it’s not. Might be good for future legislatures to take a look at it down the road. I know infrastructure is not getting cheaper."

He said it would “be good for these programs to keep up with it-inflation, etc., be good for these cities, it’s too much for them.” He decried “band-aid approaches.” He said, “It’s not what the community wants. They want better services and people are unhappy and there are ways of dealing with it.” 

Larson added, “Like you were saying, people moving to the community will look at things like this and say, 'What is this going to cost me?'”

Cooney said some communities felt they had no choice and raised taxes to replace the water system, replace their school, put a lot of money into their hospital and their main street. “They said, ‘It’s not the most popular, but in the end if you don’t do it, we can’t compete. It’s the only thing that allows us to compete and draw people to this area and give people what they want.’ They did everything in one fell swoop-didn’t have to keep tearing up the streets.”

Bushnell agreed, “That’s what we wanted to do, work the water with the storm sewer (at the same time)” but he said, money did not allow for it all to be done at once, a whole street at a time.

As a result, Larson said now, “when storms drop lot of rain, a lot of hail” it challenges the stormwater system. 

Cooney reflected. “We were very thrilled when we realized it was all going to come together. It finally came through! We’re really happy about it. It’s a team effort with the legislature but it was one of the Governor’s priorities. Now, hopefully communities like you can start working on these things.”

Caniglia said a lot of invidual homeowners have had a lot of problems with stormwater, new asphalt being thrown over old asphalted sites.

Cooney noted that clay pipes cause problems. “They have clay pipes in Polson. It’s lots of liability, their insurance companies are getting tired of it.”

Larson said, “Jim’s been running the camera down (the old clay pipes) and it’s amazing the amount of groundwater running into them.”

“Because they’re not water tight,” explained Cooney. “Hopefully this will help you along!” 

The Lt. Governor said his office is available should there be any issues they can’t resolve with this project and the State. 

Larson said, “Your office has always been very responsive to our calls.”

Cooney said, “It’s good to hear that. We try.” 

Cooney concluded, “This is good news. It’s not the answer to everything. But we’re finally able to get some assistance out the door and get communities on it. Good services are provided, people put to work and in the end, better services will be obtained by the people.”