Havre Daily News: Infrastructure a main topic at Tester-local official meeting

by Patrick Johnston

Sen. Jon Tester D-Mont. met with city and county officials at Bear Paw Development Corp. Friday where he talked with them about their concerns and what he can do to help.

Havre Public Works Director Dave Peterson talked a lot about the city’s roads and what needs to be done to improve them. Indeed, infrastructure was a massive subject of discussion Friday.

Peterson said the city is doing the best with what they have, but the areas under Havre’s streets are in serious need of updates before the roads themselves can be repaired, and that is going to be a serious expense.

“We don’t have all the money,” he said. “… It just isn’t there.”

He said the city is looking at using American Rescue Plan Act funds to pay for some of the updates under the streets but they may need to look a proposing some Special Improvement Districts to pay for the roads themselves.

He also talked about going after competitive ARPA funds to try to replace the lead water lines still used by so many residential areas in Havre.

Tester said he’s spent a lot of his time looking at ways to improve things like interstate highways, but the roads in towns like Havre are also extremely important and the bipartisan infrastructure bill recently passed by congress should be a big help.

Havre Mayor Doug Kaercher said the city is trying to leverage ARPA dollars as best they can can, but he is concerned about some to the stipulations for when money needs to be spent by and asked if there was any possibility of having those deadline extended.

Kaercher said he knows it’s pretty early to be talking about extensions but given how difficult it is to find materials and contractors at the moment he needs to ask.

Tester agreed that it is early and it’s unlikely that they will see blanket extensions in the near future, but given the circumstances he thinks extensions on individual projects will likely be granted when circumstance merit.

Havre Fire Chief Mel Paulson said infrastructure is a big deal for his department as well, but their biggest concern at the moment is their skyrocketing call volume, which has increased by nearly 40 percent in three years and 60 percent since the 90s.

The group also talked about new state requirements regarding commercial drivers licenses which they said requires drivers of vehicles like school buses to receive two weeks of training before taking the test, training that is costing a lot of money.

Kaercher said this seems like an inappropriate time to be creating such a requirement, given how difficult it already is to find drivers.

Tester said he would look into the matter, but they might have better luck doing training a universities which tend to be much cheaper.

Another issue Kaercher mentioned was rumors that Amtrak was going to take trains off the Empire Builder line through Havre and put them on a southern route, which Tester, a longtime advocate for Amtrak and increased rail service to the area, said was absolutely not the case.

He said he is working with Missoula County Commissioner David Strohmaier to help reestablish a southern route through the state, but there is no way he’s going to let that take away from the Hi-Line’s Amtrak service, which he said has never been the intent of the project.

In an interview after the meeting Tester said this is the first he’s heard of this rumor and said, jokingly, he’d better not find out who started it.

Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson also spoke at the meeting, touting the county’s handling of ARPA funds, saying they recently gave the Hill County Health Department $100,000 of COVID-19 relief money and they are trying to be good stewards of the money.

Hill County Public Health Director Kim Berg has been requesting money to keep her department sustainable for months and only last week did the commission finally vote to give her department access to money the promised them last year.

Peterson also complimented the work of Bear Paw Development Corp. for their tireless work making sure the community takes full advantage of the COVID-19-related money that is available.

Bear Paw Development Executive Director Paul Tuss said, despite the difficulties of the past year, he thinks his organization and the people in it did a great job keeping up with everything.

Tuss, a Democrat, is challenging Rep. Ed Hill, R-Havre, in the campaign for House District 28.