Missoula County bracing for likelihood of prolonged government shutdown

Missoula County courthouse. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

As the government shutdown lingers, Missoula County commissioners have begun planning for the unknowns that could result from a loss of federal funding and the litany of programs it supports.

Already, the county has been forced to delay several meetings and projects, including a wastewater treatment system in Seeley Lake and cleanup of the defunct Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. pulp and paper mill in Frenchtown.

Both projects require federal support and the presence of government experts.

“I don’t specifically know which funding streams are and aren’t affected or what the longevity of the current allocations are, or how long they will last,” Commissioner Cola Rowley said Tuesday. “But we’re starting to ask those questions of our departments and make contingency plans. What is the situation going to look like if this shutdown continues to drag on?”

Efforts to install a wastewater treatment system in Seeley Lake have been years in the making. Progress was expected this month, though it has been delayed due to the absence of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

“Before anything moves forward substantially, we have to have USDA on board because that’s the funding agency,” Rowley said.

Last week, the Smurfit-Stone Mill Site Community Advisory Group also gathered for an update on testing and cleanup at the site. But neither the EPA nor the Montana Department of Environmental Quality attended the meeting.

“They (EPA) have new people starting and we were really trying to get set up with the people from Denver and the new person here (Allie Archer),” Rowley said. “We still have that on our calendars, but it’s a meeting we’ll have to delay. The work has stopped on the site. That’s been a frustratingly delayed project already, and now it’s just adding more delays.”

Commissioners said it is hard to predict all the impacts the government shutdown could have in the weeks to come if it continues.

Funding streams could be at risk, along with the programs they support, including Relationship Violence Services and funding for the Health Department and Partnership Health Center.

And without U.S. Forest Service employees, the county can’t continue talks to consider making Sawmill Gulch in the upper Rattlesnake a county road.

“We’ve also got the wildfire protection plan,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier. “That’s certainly got a federal component to it.”

Chris Lounsbury, the county’s chief operating officer, said work with FEMA could also be at risk if the shutdown persists. The program falls under the Department of Homeland Security.

“We’ve been able to continue on some of the projects we have, but that will be a problem as those funds that are paying for that run out if there isn’t an allocation in the future,” Lounsbury said. “That includes our open grants for fuel mitigation to when we start talking about homeowner buyouts for pieces in the floodplain. All of that is under FEMA’s funding.”

Federal shutdown stops monitoring, cleanup efforts at Frenchtown pulp mill site