Whitefish Pilot: Whitefish could see about $2 million from COVID-19 relief plan

by Heidi Desch

The American Rescue Plan Act is slated to bring $1.37 billion to Montana through state, county and local governments. The City of Whitefish is estimated to receive about $2 million as a result.

The most recent COVID-19 relief package is expected to provide relief for governments that have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Democrat Sen. Jon Tester was the only member of the Montana delegation to vote for the relief package.

Tester said over the past year he has had hundreds of conversations with Montanans about how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected them.

“We need to get the vaccine in people’s arms as quickly and safely as possible,” he said during a press call on Thursday. “Everybody who wants it from Ekalaka to Troy needs to be able to get it so we can get over this.”

Tester said the state is not out of the woods yet, but the American Rescue Plan would provide a critical economic boost to communities hard hit by the pandemic. He pointed out that $8.5 billion is set aside for rural hospitals and that funding includes reinstating Amtrak to full service.

Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld thanked Tester for his role in passing the plan.

“Because of this bill it will help local cities like ours to deal with the aftermath of the pandemic,” he said. “It was extremely important to our town and the tourism industry of Northwest Montana to get the Empire Builder back up and running at full capacity. Because of Senator Tester’s hard work Amtrak will be bringing people into Montana and maintaining many jobs in Whitefish and throughout Montana.”

Whitefish City Manager Dana Smith said the city is waiting on an official amount, but it anticipates receiving half of the amount this year and half next year. The City Council will likely consider how to spend the money during its fiscal year 2022 budget process that begins in June.

“We will likely recommend replacing any lost revenue due to COVID-19, specifically lost revenue for our Parks and Recreation Department and resort tax fund,” she said. “We experienced declines in revenue due to capacity limits of before/after school, summer day camp, and other recreation programs. Resort tax collections were also down last year due to businesses being closed or facing limited capacity which has impacted the timing of the Edgewood Street reconstruction project.”

“We are still working through the best way to support our community as we recover from the pandemic and the economic impacts it has had on our town,” she added.

Montana cities and towns will receive approximately $133 million and counties will receive $207 million.

Additionally, the state of Montana will receive $910 million to respond to the health and economic crisis. Montana will also receive $119 million to fund capital projects such as water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure that is vital for remote education and health monitoring.

The funds can be used for revenue shortfalls and can also be used to cover increased expenses associated with the public health response to the virus, like securing additional personal protective equipment for first responders and helping counties shoulder the costs of safely reopening schools.

Replying to a question, Tester on Thursday addressed efforts by the Montana Legislature to restrict how the COVID-19 funding can be spent by cities, counties or schools if they have COVID-19 restrictions that are more restrictive than the state.

“The state Legislature can do what they want, but it’s a poor decision,” he said.

Tester said local school and government boards know better what is needed in their community than either the state Legislature or Congress.