Great Northern Apartments

Administrator for Housing and Community Facilities Programs Tammy Trevino, Mary Lou Affleck and Marvin Brown chat after the groundbreaking for Great Northern Apartments in Laurel on Tuesday. The apartments will provide affordable housing for Montanans with disabilities.

She grabbed a golden shovel and with the ball of her foot, attempted with little success to bury its blade in the sun-baked Laurel clay.

“Usually, there’s some soft dirt for me,” said Tammy Trevino, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Housing Service.

“Not in Laurel,” said a man in the crowd, not when the temperature threatened to break 100 degrees for the second day in a row. There were now nine other dignitaries with shovels attempting to “break ground” on a new 12-bedroom apartment complex for people with disabilities.

Trevino broke through, produced half a shovel load of compact earth, and offered half her load to the woman digging futilely beside her. They held their shovels out together for anyone wanting a photo of the groundbreaking for the Great Northern Apartments.

The RHS is a big player in Montana housing. Statewide in 2011, it helped 1,113 families get home loans, including 91 in Yellowstone County. Another 930 Montanans have received help so far this year, including 89 locally.

The service is part of the USDA’s Rural and Community Development agency, which is one of the federal government’s bigger economic development players in rural areas. Lately, things have been a little rocky for the agency as Congress looks for programs to cut.

The Senate Agriculture Committee authored a 2012 farm bill this year that left out the title normally reserved for Rural Development. Opponents to the move argued that the farm bill has almost always been about helping small towns as well as farms, and the striking the title would damage rural economies. Leaving the title out eliminated 16 rural programs covering everything from rural business aid to small-town infrastructure.

Then last week as the bill was amended on the Senate floor, lawmakers restored $150 million in mandatory funding for certain Rural Development programs. The vote to restore the funding was 55-40, with one Democrat voting no and two Republicans voting yes with the Democrats.

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U.S. Sen. Max Baucus said the Rural Development programs would be critical in helping Eastern Montana towns with infrastructures worn thin by the Bakken oil boom.

“It’s only right that we recognize the needs of our Bakken communities that are doing some of the heavy lifting to absorb the energy boom,” he said.

With the amendment, the USDA Rural Housing Service loans and grants were supported and the definition of “rural” was broadened, which opened eligibility to more Montana communities.

Roughly $50 million was approved for small-town water and sewer system upgrades. And $3.2 billion was added to help with rural sewer and water projects currently waiting in line for federal aid.

The Senate dedicated $15 million to financial aid for rural businesses with fewer than 10 full-time employees. A main purpose of the funding is to leverage private support.

Trevino said she was happy with the support the Senate gave in the end.

“In RDA, we fared very well,” she said. “They were agreeable to what we put forward in our budget.”

The House is expected to take up its version of the farm bill in early July.

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