Great Falls Tribune: Great Falls, Missoula, Bozeman could lose federal funding because of change in definition

by David Murray

Great Falls is Montana’s third largest city but to some in Washington D.C. its still too small to qualify for full “metropolitan” appropriations.

A recent proposal to change the definition of what constitutes a “Metropolitan Service Area” could have a significant and potentially long-lasting impact on the amount of money Montana communities like Great Falls, Missoula and Bozeman receive from the federal government.

On Jan. 19, 2021 the Office of Management and Budget published a proposal to double the population requirement for communities to qualify as Metropolitan Service Areas (MSAs), raising the requirement from 50,000 residents to 100,000. The proposal is significant because a wide variety of federal agencies use the MSA designation to determine funding allocations.

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If implemented, both Great Falls and Missoula, with current populations of 58,835 and 73,710 respectively, would immediately be reduced in status from “metropolitan” to “micropolitan.” Although the overall impact the change would have is still uncertain, the fear is that it would cause several federal agencies to redirect financial resources away from Montana cities to larger communities in other states.

Both of Montana’s senators oppose the proposal.

“The implications of this shift would be significant, as up to half of the federal funding these cities normally receive would be redirected,” Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said in letter to Rob Fairweather, acting director of the OMB. “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. Great Falls is a major agricultural hub, as well as being home to the main economic development and medical facilities in North Central Montana. In Western Montana, Missoula is a major financial and academic community that has grown substantially in recent years.”

Read a complete copy of Daines’ letter to Rob Fairweather here.

Bozeman mayor Cyndy Andrus noted that the city she represents has only recently achieved MSA status and would be stripped of that designation before realizing any benefit. The 2020 census placed Bozeman’s population at 52,800.

“Any attempt to make changes in the population designation to qualify for an MSA will jeopardize our opportunity for additional funding and muddy the waters around the funding sources that currently exist,” said Andrus. “Especially right now, it is critical that we have certainty for funding some of our most pressing issues, like CDBG (Community Development Block Grants) to support affordable housing.”

Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly expressed concern that the proposed change could potentially undercut COVID relief funding for the city.

“The targeted relief funds in the latest COVID relief package are critical for Great Falls first responders, health care workers, and schools,” Kelly said. “But this proposed change could significantly alter or disrupt our ability to receive that support, which would be devastating for our city.”

According to OMB statistics, 144 communities across the United States would be impacted by the proposal including three of Montana’s four largest cities.

“I am concerned this proposal will harm some communities in states like Montana by placing all small towns into one category and disrupting the flow of resources for vital initiatives like housing and healthcare assistance,” wrote Montana Sen. Jon Tester to Fairweather. “I strongly believe now is not the time to change the rules of the road for our nation’s small communities as they continue to grapple with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Read a complete copy Tester’s letter to Rob Fairweather here.

It is not clear when OMB will issue its final determination on the matter.