Sidney, Montana: Riding the boomtown roller coaster (with NPR audio)

Sidney oil derrick

Pump-jack sits on an oil well near downtown Sidney. Photo: David Gilkey, NPR

Sidney, Montana is riding the boomtown roller coaster.

Last year we reported on Sidney’s unmet infrastructure needs as the town was  riding the upwards Bakken boom. Growth had taxed the city’s infrastructure to bursting. A summary from a Montana Public Radio report in late 2013:

  • Traffic up as much as 50 percent in the last five or six years, “pounding local roads into gravel.”
  • New hotels and housing straining the city’s sewer system to its limit.
  • The town brings in about $10 million dollars a year in taxes, but it has $55 million dollars in infrastructure needs.

Help from Helena was not forthcoming. According to then-Mayor Bret Smelser, Governor Bullock had vetoed a bill that would have provided $35 million to eastern Montana to pay for increased infrastructure costs. Bullock said he vetoed it because he had to cut $150 million of “spending or tax cuts to balance the budget.”

At the time, Sidney had raised taxes and fees as much as they could:

  • raised water rates
  • raised sewer rates
  • raised sewer hookup fees
  • initiated impact fees

A new infrastructure strain
The funding crunch began to ease somewhat in 2014, but now, according to a new report on National Public Radio, the oil price bust is providing a new infrastructure hit. According to new Mayor Rick Norby, the town will receive $600,000 less in tax revenue from oil production, plus a hit in hotel and gambling taxes. As the report says, “That’s a big deal when your whole budget is $11 million and your town now has a major highway running through it.”

The money coming from the oil boom pays for fundamental services that are stretched thin. Sidney is looking for $30 million to build a new truck bypass. A new $70 million water treatment plant is also needed.

Mayor Rick Norby (right) and two staff members inspect one of Sidney's wastewater lagoons, which needs to be replaced by modern treatment plant. Photo: David Gilkey, NPR

Mayor Rick Norby (right) and two staff members inspect one of Sidney’s wastewater lagoons, which needs to be replaced by modern treatment plant. Photo: David Gilkey, NPR

According to the report the infrastructure strain is tremendous:

  • Crime is up and Norby doesn’t have the police force to deal with it. The town’s population has grown 20% since 2010, and his police force has grown the same amount. But, as shown in the chart below, arrests for DUI, Assault, narcotics and disorderly conduct have increased as much as 475% in the same period

Sidney crime chart

  • Sidney’s schools, which have funding that is closely tied to oil revenues, had been slowly climbing out of a hole as recent additional funding had provided more teachers and classroom aides. The school district recently started a long-term facilities plan. But that plan depended on high oil prices. As a local administrator says, “One of my biggest fears is that tomorrow, all of a sudden, it’s gone.”

The piece concludes:

From the schools to the police station to city hall, people in Sidney are worried right now about what the drop in oil prices is going to mean for them. Mayor Rick Norby says the only option is to start cutting, unless the state Legislature taps emergency funds to help out boom towns like his.

“That’s why we’re screaming,” Mayor Norby says. “We’re drowning, we need help.”

You can listen to the NPR report here.

What it means for the Beartooth Front
This is a cautionary tale for communities along the Beartooth Front. The boom cycle can be ruinous to a town. Sidney is still booming, but the oil price collapse could be a precursor of a complete bust.

The boom was something that happened to Sidney. Growth occurred outside any ability of the town to control it.

Communities concerned about their long-term futures need to plan and take local control of growth.

Montana connection to the NPR report. The report was done by Kirk Siegler, a national reporter for NPR based in Culver City, CA. Siegler is a Montana native who got his start in reporting 2003 covering the Montana Legislature for Montana Public Radio. He grew up in Missoula.

About davidjkatz

The Moses family has lived on the Stillwater River since 1974, when George and Lucile Moses retired and moved to the Beehive from the Twin Cities. They’re gone now, but their four daughters (pictured at left, on the Beehive) and their families continue to spend time there, and have grown to love the area. This blog started as an email chain to keep the family informed about the threat of increased fracking activity in the area, but the desire to inform and get involved led to the creation of this blog.
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1 Response to Sidney, Montana: Riding the boomtown roller coaster (with NPR audio)

  1. Pingback: Montana legislature to eastern Montana: your infrastructure, your problem | Preserve the Beartooth Front

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