When Jerry Lacy was appointed in November to fill the mayor’s seat vacated by Mark Sheets, he rejoined a team who had worked well together for years. He also inherited a veritable blizzard of projects to help steward through to their conclusion.
Lacy’s 27 years with the Public Works department meant he was well-versed in the technical aspects of most of those projects. In his new seat, Lacy is adapting to coordinating the financial administration, engineers, and Public Works (now headed Neil Harnett), and working with the public to show why projects are needed and why this is the time to do them.
Asked what the city is up to these days, Lacy and Clerk/Treasurer Chelsea Peterson recite a mile-long list of infrastructure, equipment, and vehicle updates and improvements in the works, and an alphabet soup of grants, low-interest loans and matches, funding and partner agencies and organizations the city is working with and has accomplished through the years. Lacy strives to continue the city’s efforts to ensure the best value and outcome providing services and meeting regulatory requirements, while minimizing the financial strain on community members. It’s a complicated juggling act.
The need for a new sewer system for a part of town that is on individual septic systems is a two-phase portion of one such project for the whole town. Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality and the county sanitarian, tasked with preventing ground water contamination, have highlighted the risks posed by so many septics concentrating waste in one area. Working with Great West Engineering, a preliminary engineering report has been done, planning out the city sewer lines required to route the stuff to the treatment plant.
“This project that we’re anticipating right now has become somewhat controversial. A lot of folks who have never been on the city sewer don’t really want to have to take on the expense of it. It’s understandable. Nobody wants to pay for anything they don’t have to.”
With that in mind, many funding sources are being combined to minimize the expense for those affected. The cost, including an upgrade to the treatment plant, is currently about $15 million. USDA Rural Development has pledged $9 million in grant funding. Treasure State Endowment Program has preliminarily granted another $750,000. The rest, about $4,700, is proposed to come from loans that will have to be paid back by those on the system, either with a one-time payment up front or by splitting it up over 20 years (plus interest) through the monthly sewer rate and property taxes. Additional funding is being worked on, including a Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) and a Corps of Engineers Water Resources Development Act grant. This would be used to offset the tax portion for low-income people and elderly people. If both grants come through, says Lacy, “we’re probably going to be able to eliminate that tax assessment for everyone in this phase.”
“It’s going to have to be done at some point,” Lacy says, “and it only gets more expensive as time goes along. They estimate the price goes up 3-4 percent per year.” A 2008 cost estimate for the whole city was around $11 million, four million less than the current $15 million for the first two phases. The entire project price is expected to $25 million.
A major water project — upgrades to pipes originally put in in 1949 in the Clay Street/Fourth Ave. area — will be completed this spring.
Ainsworth Field construction will be bid soon, and final construction will begin as soon as weather permits, thanks to a CDBG grand of nearly $400,000. The Veteran’s Memorial at Ainsworth Field was finished last fall. “That looks nice, and it will be really nice when everything comes together.”
Upgrades are coming to the public swimming pool, too. The city is currently seeking matching funding for a Montana State Parks $75,000 grant for the $150,000 project. Sanders County Community Development Corporation (SCCDC) is doing a feasibility study to look into creating a park district that would spread the high cost of maintaining the pool over a larger area than just the city limits. “It would be similar to the library, which is now a city/county library,” says Lacy. “A lot of people use it from outside the city.” Lacy credits Sandra Kazmierczak with running the pool smoothly for 20 years.
Perhaps most important for the future are several grants that will allow the city to develop a capital improvements plan and to develop a growth policy to help prioritize future needs. “It might seem like overkill for such a small community,” Lacy says, “but when you have those documents you’re better able to secure funding for improvements to the town. Funding agencies see that you have a plan you are implementing and not just spending your money piecemeal.” Many area grants have been denied over the past decade due to lacking these plans. The city had to match a small portion of these costs, while grants came from Montana Dept. of Natural Resources, Hecla Mining, SCCDC.
“Chelsea’s very good at securing funding for projects,” Lacy says.
“And then I irritate the Public Works,” she laughs. “I’ll say, ‘We need to fix the pool now. I got the money, I just need your help.’ Or, ‘I need you to mow the ball field – the money’s here.’
“It’s been a pretty good team effort with the financial administration and Public Works, and Mark [Sheets] was instrumental in getting a lot of it going,” Lacy says. “I think we’ve got a real good staff here. Everybody works well together and it makes things go a lot smoother.”
Don’t let the peaceful easy feeling you get at Thompson Falls city hall fool you. That place is jumping.