Daily Montanan: Missoula, Great Falls and Bozeman to keep federal metropolitan designation

by Darrell Ehrlick

Sen. Jon Tester literally put Great Falls, Missoula and likely Bozeman on the map.

Montana’s senior United States Senator was informed on Tuesday that his charge to keep the federal Office of Budget and Management from changing the definition of “metropolitan statistical area” was successful. That means Great Falls and Missoula will not fall off the map as a city as the Biden Administration had previously proposed changing the definition of MSA to any city above the population of 100,000. The definition of MSA will remain at any city or area more than 50,000 people.

Bozeman will likely eclipse 50,000 people for the first time when the official census numbers are reported later this year, and it will likely be added, becoming the fourth metropolitan statistical area. Billings is the state’s largest area and would have fit the proposed change regardless.

Though it sounds like a federal technicality, the designation is critical because many federal programs and funding are based on the designation. Along with Montana’s three cities, 141 other cities across the country were likely to face uncertain futures as federal subsidies for things like water and sewer treatment to ambulances could have been put in jeopardy.

“Cities across the country rely on MSA status to determine funding for several federal initiatives. However, every federal agency has its own federal funding formula, which may or may not use the MSA designation in some capacity,” Tester wrote in a March letter to the OMB. “Given the chaos and instability communities have faced the last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be irresponsible of OMB to make such a drastic change without knowing the full effect.”

Tester not only wrote to the Office of Management and Budget, but also authored legislation that would have made it illegal for the office to make the change. The simple bill, less than two pages of text, would have kept the MSA designation at 50,000.

Bowing to Tester’s pressure, the OMB relented Tuesday.

“Montana communities depend on certainty and reliable funding to thrive, and a shortsighted bureaucratic change like this is the last thing cities like Great Falls, Missoula, and Bozeman needed as they work to get back on their feet after the pandemic,” Tester said. “I’m glad OMB listened to me and the many voices who pushed back against this poorly conceived proposal, and I will continue fighting to make sure cities and towns across our state have the resources they need to provide critical services, create jobs, and come out strong on the other side of this crisis.”

Local mayors in Montana said they were concerned about how the change might impact funding tied to specific services.

“Like many communities, Great Falls relies on federal funding to support our schools, firefighters and first responders, and health care workers – especially as we build back following the pandemic – but this proposed rule change put those funds in jeopardy, and would have been devastating for our community,” said Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly. “Tester fought tooth and nail to reverse this poor decision and make sure it didn’t go into effect.”

The mayor of Montana’s second largest city said that definitions of cities and towns may not take into account the regional differences with a one-size-fits-all policy.

“I’m grateful for Senator Tester’s advocacy and leadership, once again, in ensuring that Montanans aren’t left out of the conversation when federal agencies propose ideas that look good on paper but leave cities like Missoula out in the cold,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen.

“Our ability to directly serve our residents is enhanced greatly by our status as a metropolitan area, and Senator Tester’s work in tapping the brakes here means we’ll be able to continue to serve vulnerable residents through CDGB and HOME programs, as well as make thoughtful local decisions to spend federal transportation dollars.”