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Coal board meets to consider over $1.5 million in grants

Coal board meets to consider over $1.5 million in grants

When Montana’s Coal Board meets today at the Hampton Inn in Billings, it will consider nearly $1.5 million in grant requests.

But the board has just $1.4 million to spend in the current biennium, according to Ellen Hanpa, administrative officer for the board. No additional money will be available until the next biennium begins July 1, 2011.

Among the applicants is the city of Billings, which is seeking $250,000 for a pedestrian bridge over the railroad tracks at 25th Street. This is the second time around for the project, which died on a tie vote at the board’s meeting in October. The application the city submitted this time asks $50,000 more than the previous request.

 It will be competing with applications from all over coal country, from Roundup to Terry.

The Crow Tribe wants $250,000 for the third phase of its wastewater collection system in Crow Agency; Roundup wants $135,000 for parks and street equipment; Colstrip applied for $23,245 for a compressed air foam system for its fire department; Musselshell County needs $35,000 for a feasibility study on replacing the boiler at Roundup Memorial Hospital; Prairie County seeks $166,827 to replace its courthouse roof; Broadview is asking for $450,000 for a water project; and Hardin wants $174,994 in funding for Two Rivers Authority, which operates the empty Hardin jail.

Money for grants comes from the state coal severance tax, which Montana initiated in 1975. At the time — in the midst of a coal boom that saw major new strip mines in Big Horn and Rosebud counties — the severance tax was 30 percent, and 8.75 percent of that went to the Coal Board. The money was to be used to deal with the impacts of coal mining on local government entities — counties, cities and schools among them.

Grants helped build or buy infrastructure including jails, schools, firetrucks and road graders. In some years, the Coal Board had as much as $8 million to distribute.

But over the course of more than 30 years, the severance tax has been slashed and the mining communities in southeastern Montana matured, their tax bases catching up with community needs. As a result, the Coal Board’s portion of the severance tax was reduced to 2.9 percent.

Then the Signal Peak Mine was developed in Musselshell County, increasing the need for impact funding to one of Montana’s poorer communities. The 2009 Legislature doubled the amount the Coal Board received to 5.8 percent. With an increase in coal production and doubling of the Coal Board allocation, about $5.7 million is available in the current biennium. During the previous biennium, the board had only $2 million to distribute.

Much of the money has already been spent, and the lion’s share went to Musselshell County and Roundup, where the new mine began shipping coal last fall. At its June meeting, the board allocated $2.7 million in grants. Musselshell County got $1.75 million for roads, patrol cars, road equipment, two employees for its road crew, a new deputy sheriff and an ambulance.

At its October meeting, the board approved another $1.4 million in grants, including $300,000 for a new firetruck in Roundup, $261,785 for a storm water system in Roundup, $200,000 for wastewater system improvements in Hardin and $237,000 for a new fire station and garage in Golden Valley County.

The quarterly meeting in Billings begins at 8:30 a.m. Friday at the Hampton Inn, 3550 Ember Lane.

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