Tester Pushes Back Against Proposed Rule That Would Create Uncertainty for Montana Towns

Office of Management and Budget proposed change to city size designation would impact Great Falls, Missoula, and likely Bozeman

U.S. Senator Jon Tester today is pushing back against a new Office of Management and Budget (OMB) proposal that could significantly alter the amount of federal funding received by Great Falls, Missoula, and likely Bozeman, through a range of federal programs, creating uncertainty for municipal governments in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

“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 Tester to OMB Acting Director Robert S. 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.”

Tester continued, “At this time, it is unclear what the full scope of the MSA designation has on our cities’ funding eligibly. 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.”

The Mayors of Great Falls, Missoula, and Bozeman voiced their support for Tester’s push:

“The targeted relief funds in the latest COVID relief package are critical for Great Falls first responders, health care workers, and schools,” said Great Falls Mayor Bob Kelly. “But this proposed change could significantly alter or disrupt our ability to receive that support, which would be devastating for our city. We’re grateful to Senator Tester for fighting for this critical relief for Great Falls and for pushing back against this rule change.”

“Most Montanans live in cities and have the same challenges as larger urban areas, but at a different scale,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “Today, the City of Missoula benefits greatly from the status quo and we deploy those federal resources in ways that assist not only local residents, but our rural neighbors. I stand with Senator Tester in asking that a system that’s working effectively for Montanans and many smaller cities across the United States not be upended, particularly as we navigate pandemic recovery. We’re grateful to Senator Tester and President Biden for their heroic efforts to right the ship through the American Rescue Plan and hope that we don’t take a step back.”

“Bozeman is on the cusp of qualifying for the Metropolitan Service Area (MSA) designation. 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 Bozeman Mayor Cyndy Andrus. “Especially right now, it is critical that we have certainty for funding some of our most pressing issues, like CDBG grants to support affordable housing.”

The Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) is a designation currently used by OMB to refer to geographic areas with a population of at least 50,000 people. This designation is used by a range of federal agencies and programs to determine funding allocations-some are required to do so by law, others elect to do so. For example, the Medicare Hospital Wage Index and Ambulance Fee Schedule published annually as well as Medicare’s graduate medical education payments are guided specifically by the MSA definition. However, because each program has its own funding formula, there is no database to find out which agencies use MSA and which do not.

In January, the OMB proposed to change the population threshold of the MSA to 100,000 people, which would impact 144 communities across the country including Great Falls and Missoula. In addition, this could impact Bozeman, which is estimated to cross the 50,000 threshold under the 2020 Census data. Because of the lack of centralized information about which programs use MSA, there is no way to know what effect such a change would have on Montana communities during a global public health and economic crisis.

In the most recent COVID relief package, Senator Tester helped secure more than $1 billion for Montana state, local, and Tribal governments to help hard hit towns through the pandemic. These funds can be used to support local health care infrastructure, schools, and first responders, who have been on the frontlines of the crisis for more than a year.

“Maintaining consistency in the MSA status will help local governments and businesses bounce back from the economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic,” concluded Tester. “Please do not move forward with this proposal.”

Read Tester’s full letter HERE.