by Evelyn Pyburn

While receiving $32 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) may be considered something of a windfall for Yellowstone County, there’s a lot of needs in the county and it goes quickly, according to Yellowstone County Commissioners.

The commissioners and other county officials are in the process of identifying priorities while trying to sort out the state and federal rules about how they can spend the money. Time frames imposed by federal regulations limit substantially their options, but fortunately Yellowstone County had several projects in the planning stages which also happen to qualify as permissible expenditures by ARPA.

County Commissioner Don Jones said that counties without qualified projects already in the planning may not be able to meet the late summer deadline.

Commissioners are working on meeting their own internal deadline of mid-July to determine what projects they want to set as priorities to obligate in spending the first half of the ARPA grant – -$15.6 million—which has already been released to the county. ARPA requires that the monies issued to counties and municipalities  be spent by Dec. 31, 2024

Besides addressing the needs of health and safety, the county must have direct line of authority over any entity or projects to which they direct the ARPA money. Counties and major municipalities have been allotted funds directly, but the state set aside a separate program for “non-entitled units” of government which would typically include many “districts” or local governments serving less than 50,000 people.

Much of the county’s funding will be spent on rebuilding infrastructure and utilities at Metra Park, according to the commissioners, not only because it involves projects for which much of the preliminary work has already been done but because Metra Park and the role it plays in serving the community easily qualifies within the parameters of ARPA for public health and safety.

County officials had already recognized the need to refurbish Metra Park’s almost 100-year old infrastructure and has already had extensive engineering studies and evaluations completed in anticipation of conducting numerous projects, from replacing water and sewer lines to enhancing broadband capacity. Because of that preliminary work all they have to do to launch many of the projects is issue a “request for proposals.”

Metra Park infrastructure projects include such things as water and sewer lines, storm water retainage, electricity – “everything that is under the ground”, including the possibility of expanding Metra Park’s broadband capacity to 5G. 

Expanding broadband capacity requires the installation of fiber optic cabling. Broadband 5G is the newest global wireless standard which delivers higher peak data speeds which can connect “everyone and everything together,” including machines, objects, and devices.

County commissioners are also eyeing the possibility of doing a pre-engineering study in Lockwood to install water and sewer lines in the areas of Johnson Lane and Coulson Road aimed especially at the planned industrial park, the TEDD (Targeted Economic Development District).

The county, under the direction of purchasing agent, James Matteson, has issued requests for qualifications from architects, engineers and consultants, to design, estimate costs and scope of work for Metra Park and for the Lockwood area. Responses for the Lockwood RFQ is June 14 and for Metra Park RFQs, June 28.

Matteson explained that for any large project that involves architects or engineers, in order to select a firm the county typically issues requests for qualificaions (RFQ) which are reviewed by county officials with the top three candidates interviewed, one of which is then selected to assist in planning and getting a project ready for bid.

Jennifer Jones, the county’s assistant finance director, explained that the county commissioners need to have information that the engineers or other consultants will provide in order to “brainstorm,” and figure out what is feasible and what they can “bid out”. “Some things may not be possible,” she said.

The feasible projects will then be “obligated” under the federal guidelines, which means they have to be designed and put out to bid by the end of summer.

Jones said that the requirements of ARPA are different than most federal grant processes in which they are reimbursed when the project is completed. ARPA sends the funds up front with the stipulation that if they are not spent properly they have to be sent back, so the county wants to be very diligent in making sure they comply with the requirements.

“We have to have our ducks in the row so we have been talking about this for three or four months. We don’t want to be in a position that we can’t spend it properly and effectively,” said Jones. “I’ll do quarterly progress reports,” said Jones, upon which the federal government will determine if the county is in compliance and if they are, they will release the balance of the funds to the county in May 2022.

While many people think of Metra Park primarily as an entertainment venue, for the emergency services providers in the community it is home base for all kinds of activities. “We use Metra Park a lot, for more than just entertainment,” said KC Williams, County Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator, who sees Metra Park in a very different light, one totally in keeping with the intent of ARPA. In general APRA funds are meant to be spent in manners that fortify the health and welfare of citizens.

But even as far as being an entertainment center there is much to be said about refurbishing the facility to meet that demand. Metra Park houses the largest crowd gatherings in the state,” pointed out Williams, crowds of that size need better access to 911 and for all public safety and public health that use the grounds.

Metra Park is commonly used as a shelter for situations in which citizens are displaced, as was most recently the case when an irrigation ditch was flooding a Billings neighborhood.  Williams noted that the Red Cross frequently directs people to Meta Park who are in need of emergency shelter.

Metra Park was made available by county officials to the medical community as a backup for potential overflow from the hospitals, and provided an easily accessed location where the pubic could get tested for COVID during the pandemic.

It has often been used to accommodate fire fighters and as a point of staging emergency responses. It is  routinely used by emergency service providers for training exercises and a meeting place. “We need better access to public safety data that we constantly rely on,” said Williams.

Conceding up front that he is no expert on what it takes to increase broadband capacity for Metra Park, Williams fully understands the benefits that it would bring. In addition to responding to emergencies, increasing capacity in and around Metra Park’s 189 acres would be a significant benefit in providing a foundation for the technology for surrounding areas.

“One of the limiting factors in Metra Park serving well as backup for the hospitals’ overflow” during the height of COVID hospitalizations, explained Williams, is that medical records are all electronic now and “in order to do it correctly and most effectively we need to have better broadband capacities. When Metra Park has better broadband capabilities and can handle electronic medical records easily then using it as an alternative cite for a hospital will be easier.”


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