BILLINGS – The proposed $50 billion for rural areas in President Trump’s infrastructure plan might not work for the Treasure State, according to county leaders in Montana.

That topic was part of a much bigger discussion at the three-day Montana Association of Counties Conference in Billings.

Trump unveiled this week a $200 billion infrastructure plan, which aims to leverage federal dollars to attract a total of $1.5 trillion in investments in public-private partnerships. About 20 percent of funding for local projects would come from the federal government, which has left local officials around the country wondering if they could foot the remainder.

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In Montana, county officials are concerned the proposal doesn’t fit the state’s blueprint.

“I know it’s still in draft form, this notion… where 80 percent of the cost is borne by the local property taxpayers or local revenue sources is going to be really problematic,” said Eric Bryson, Montana Association of Counties deputy director. “Public-private partnerships work in certain circumstances, but they don’t work for essential service delivery. Toll bridges are great public-private partnerships, and they’re not allowed in Montana. You don’t do a public-private partnership for a bridge, you don’t do it very often for a water or wastewater system so the mechanism that’s been proposed I’m not sure fits with the environment here in Montana.”

At the conference, presenters gave county commissioners insight on how to adjust to the financial landscape of the state.

Officials say the Legislature’s budget cuts during the special session to county services makes this conference more significant.

“When we get into tough fiscal times, it’s my perspective and my experience that counties are much better able to adapt to those changes,” Bryson said. “Just the fact that we do fiscal years on an annual basis, instead of a biennium like the state does, and we actually adopt budgets and not kick the can down the road. Counties do a better job of managing finances.”

Bryson said counties have already done a good job reacting appropriately to the cuts and have adjusted service delivery accordingly.

“I think the issue for county commissioners is the demand for service continues to expand. So constituents continue to want more and not want to pay more in property taxes, which is understandable.”

The dilemma the state faces, according to Bryson, is the heightened level of demand for services with less money to implement them, forcing them to be fiscally conservative.

In addition, every county is unique with its own unique problems. With 56 in Montana, the joke among the MACo community is, “if you’ve seen one county, you’ve seen just one county.” Solutions to cuts are a county-by-county basis.

Still there is optimism on the infrastructure front. Cities and counties across Montana will soon see additional road-maintenance money, thanks to a 2017 increase in the state gas tax.

State transportation officials say that gas-tax increase of 4.5 cents on regular gasoline and 1.5 cents on diesel fuel raised about $6 million, money that local governments can apply for March 1.

Those funds are in addition to the $17 million already allocated for local governments’ road and street maintenance.

Billings will receive the biggest chunk of funds, with $655,000.

Just like the gas tax, the proposed infrastructure plan isn’t “free money,” say county officials.

“I think the biggest thing is what are the matching funds,” said Denis Pitman, Yellowstone County commissioner. “How much is it going to cost? How much in those funds are available? We all have projects and lists, but we have a finite amount of money that we have to match and depending on what those percentages are will determine how many projects we’ll even be able to look at.”

The conference continues through Thursday.

Reporting by Dustin Klemann for MTN News

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