Stimulus dollars flow into Yellowstone County

Billings Gazette

by Matt Hagengruber

A blind couple buys their first home on the South Side. A cop hits the streets in Laurel. A college buys life-sized model skeletons for the classroom. Construction begins on a $60 million courthouse. A company keeps some plumbers working during a recession.

Nearly two years after the federal stimulus program was signed into law by President Barack Obama, its impact has been widespread in Yellowstone County. While some Montana counties saw as little as $430,000 in stimulus funds, Yellowstone County received more than $166 million of the $1.5 billion awarded so far in Montana.

Money from the stimulus program — officially the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — has gone to government agencies, schools, businesses, hospitals, universities and other groups. While some of the funds went directly to new buildings, equipment and jobs, a lot of the money was doled out through state and federal programs to benefit health and human services, education and transportation. Some recipients received different types of stimulus assistance.

So far, entities in Yellowstone County have received 207 contracts and grants, but the impact is wider — and harder to quantify — as those groups hire others to do work or distribute the money further. There are also firms in Yellowstone County that are hired to do work outside the county.

There isn't one end-date for the entire stimulus program; different programs have their own deadlines. Still, all money from the stimulus program had to be committed to projects and programs by the end of September 2010.

Montana State University Billings received, among other awards, $7.6 million in one-time funds to plug budget holes, $1.6 million to ease tuition increases, $52,000 in additional financial aid for students and $7,000 for its contribution to a website that catalogs the plants of the Great Plains.

Some of the stimulus funds awarded to the city of Billings include more than $1.6 million to reconstruct a portion of Alkali Creek Road, $1.9 million for the city's transit program and $1.5 million for sewer and water projects.

Some of the local awards were big — $60 million for the new federal courthouse in downtown Billings — while some were as small as a $97 sub-grant for the Montana Arts Council.

While there's still plenty of political debate over the $787 billion stimulus program, some local beneficiaries won't question its effect.

"I'm not a politician; in fact I don't really like them," said Gary Russell, general manager of Precision Plumbing and Heating in Billings. "But to my men here and to my company, my belief is it has been beneficial, and that's all I really care about and that's all most people care about."

The government's online clearinghouse for stimulus information,, estimates that 193 jobs have been created or saved in the last three months in Yellowstone County because of the stimulus program. At least a few of those jobs belong to plumbers at Precision Plumbing and Heating, Russell said. His company has done work for School District 2, Montana State University Billings, the Department of the Interior, the Montana Department of Transportation and other agencies, all funded with stimulus money.

One project was to replace old boilers at MSU Billings. The project cost more than $1 million and required five plumbers from Precision.

"These things are as big as a Volkswagen," Russell said of the boilers. "A lot of the cities and municipalities, they're using stimulus funds for a lot of remodeling stuff, just old antiquated things and infrastructure that needs to be replaced. It helps keeping people working and it replaces items that are really past their life."

Russell said that more than half of his 40 plumbers have been involved in stimulus-funded projects, and he didn't have to lay anyone off during the recent recession. Without the stimulus projects, there would have been layoffs, Russell said.

Understanding where stimulus dollars have gone may be easiest when it's laid out on a map. and Montana's version of it,, rely heavily on maps. Counties that received more funding are colored darker on the maps. Not surprisingly, Yellowstone County is pretty dark on both maps. Surrounding counties are lighter by various shades, meaning they've received less stimulus funding. Treasure County, just east of Yellowstone County, has received only $460,000.

Yellowstone County's stimulus allotment works out to about $1,150 per resident. That number is higher than the $750 per resident in Treasure County, but less than the $1,955 per resident in Gallatin County.

Inside Yellowstone County, most stimulus recipients are located in downtown Billings, which includes many government agencies, businesses east of downtown, schools and MSU Billings. There are a handful of recipients in Laurel and only a few in the rural parts of the county, such as Shepherd and Custer.

Here are some snapshots of where stimulus funds have gone.

Laurel cop

Jeff Childers was a paramedic and EMT for the past 10 years, but he wanted to scratch a longtime itch to become a cop. Fortunately, Laurel Police Chief Rick Musson was hiring.

Childers was brought on recently as a full-time police officer in Laurel and the first three years of his salary will be paid through the stimulus program. As it has grown, Laurel has hired officers through the federal government's COPS program, which normally pays for a portion of an officer's salary for a few years. Each year, the city pays more until it pays the entire salary after four years.

But Laurel won't pay any of Childers' salary for three years, thanks to stimulus funds awarded through the COPS program. Musson said the city will likely need a 13th officer a few years from now and will be able to afford Childers' salary by then. Other communities have avoided hiring cops, teachers and others using stimulus funds because of a fear that local revenues won't be there once the stimulus funds are exhausted.

"How can you project four years down the road? You can't, but it's a commitment that you have to have: to say on that fourth year, you have to keep that person on at full expense," Musson said. "There were chiefs that didn't put in (for the COPS money). There were sheriffs that didn't put in. That was the biggest question: what's going to happen in year four? And I don't blame them, but we needed the manpower."

Childers has been training with other Laurel officers and will start three months of training at the Montana Law Enforcement Academy on Jan. 2. After he returns, Laurel will be able to have at least two officers on every shift, he said.

"It's huge for the city of Laurel," Childers said. "There are nights when there is just one officer on duty. By adding my position, there will be two officers on every shift."

Christine and Curtis

In June, Christine McLaughlin and her husband, Curtis Wyman, bought their home in the 400 block of Jackson Street. The couple, who are both blind, received $15,000 in down payment assistance and another $15,000 for energy upgrades from the stimulus program. The couple received the help through the city's Community Development Department, which manages the programs.

Program manager Lynda Woods helped the couple put together a list of upgrades and then got the list to local contractors for bids. McLaughlin and Wyman picked the best bid and received a new furnace, duct work, new doors and windows and insulation in their attic. They also received a talking thermostat that tells them where the temperature is set. The house is now warm and tight, with an old attached garage converted into a utility room for the new furnace.

Wyman said there used to be two furnaces to heat the house, and the house leaked so much air and heat that the couple could feel it.

"It was a very poor furnace," Wyman said of the old system. "It made heat but it didn't go anywhere."

Without the assistance, the couple would still be in a run-down rental, they said.

"It's nice to have a backyard for my guide dog," McLaughlin said. "Room for him to run around."

Woods said the city received just $190,000 in stimulus funds for the homeowner programs, but it was enough to help nine families. An added benefit is that, if any of the homeowners sell their homes, they must pay back the assistance they've received. The city can then loan that money to other qualified buyers, Woods said.

"Purchasing a home is always such a large investment," Woods said. "Homeowners aren't always able to make those investments in homes that might need those upgrades. This program has allowed that."

Montana Migrant Health Program

The Montana Migrant Health Program provides health care to migrant workers who work in remote and rural parts of Montana. Research and Development Coordinator Claudia Stephens said the program received $230,786 in stimulus funds to sustain and increase the program through 2011. After that, Stephens hopes the program can continue to sustain itself, but she knows layoffs could happen.

"We go out to the work sites and homes to locate people that might be eligible for the clinics. Once we get them here, we focus on preventive health care, including nurse care, dental hygienists, and we have a mental health counselor," Stephens said. "Stimulus has saved some jobs that otherwise would have been lost. We're a small health care organization that really needs to hold onto its staff. Without that money, we could have reduced care and lost jobs in the community."

The funds allowed the program to increase its work hours by 9 percent and to provide a small raise to contract health care providers. Stephens said the money will help the program and its 6,000 patients.

Billings Public Schools

School District 2 received nearly $16 million in stimulus funds, much of which went to back-filling the district's budget and avoiding about 60 teacher layoffs. A lot of money also went to building upgrades, with benefits already on display. Rich Whitney, facilities director for the district, said the annual utility bill for the Career Center has dropped $50,000 since upgrades were installed there last year.

"That was a huge savings," he said. "And at facilities, we've dropped the heating bills 38 percent."

Using nearly $2 million in grants from the stimulus program, the district replaced roofs, water heaters, boilers, windows and doors at various schools. More upgrades are on the way next year after voters approved $12 million in stimulus bonds for building renovations. The public will pay for the $12 million in bonds, while the "stimulus" comes in the form of lower interest rates.

Thomas Harper, the district's financial chief, said the quarterly reporting requirements for stimulus funds are a little more onerous than for most federal dollars. The money was also given out so quickly that the rules sometimes followed the disbursement.

"The paperwork trail is really pretty extensive, time-consuming, resource-burning," he said. "The money came so fast and a lot of times the guidance came later. But there's no doubt the district is very appreciative to get the money."

Harper said he is optimistic that the district didn't just delay layoffs by using stimulus funds. He said Gov. Brian Schweitzer's proposed state budget helps fill the hole that stimulus funding has been plugging until now.

Rocky Mountain College

Thanks to a stimulus grant of more than $73,000, aspiring physician assistants at Rocky Mountain College will soon have new equipment for their anatomy studies. The grant purchased three dissection tables, two life-sized orthopedic skeletons, two life-sized skeleton models with organs, two torso models and a special software program.

Biology professor Claire Oakley said the equipment will modernize the anatomy laboratory. The dissection tables are especially helpful because they come with a built-in downdraft fan that draws unpleasant odors away from students as they work on cadavers, Oakley said. Until now, students have worked mostly on gurneys donated from the local medical community.

"This is very significant grant," Oakley said. "I think its always nice when you have sharper-looking equipment and sharper-looking teaching supplies. We've always offered a very fine program without the new toys. But having the new toys will be wonderful."

The grant was awarded in September, so while all the equipment has been ordered, it hasn't yet been delivered.

City of Billings

Besides money for community development, road and infrastructure projects, the city received $1 million for a taxiway paving project at the Billings Logan International Airport. The city also received transit money to buy new buses, paratransit vans and a new bus wash at the bus facility on Monad Road, said Tom Binford, director of the city's Aviation and Transit division.

The airport project was on the city's to-do list, but not for a few more years.

"We could get it designed and bid quickly," Binford said of the airport project. "We kind of moved it up and did it more quickly with stimulus funds than waiting a couple of years."

MET Transit received $368,000 for operations, which really helped the department, Binford said. Almost no municipal transit operations nationwide get by without federal funding, Binford and other city officials pointed out.

"The hardest thing is to fund day-to-day operations," Binford said. "A shot of operational money was very good, and these vans and buses — getting them now versus later is a good thing for us."