Helena commission supports additional funding for Friendship Center, city projects

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HELENA — The city of Helena still has more than $1 million set aside in general fund money that they saved because of the American Rescue Plan Act. At an administrative meeting on Wednesday, the Helena City Commission talked about the possibility of investing some of that money in some new projects.

ARPA provided “local recovery funds” to help local governments recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Helena claimed almost $8.5 million to account for lost city revenue during that period. Receiving that grant allowed the city to free up the same amount from the general fund and redirect it to other city and community projects.

So far, city leaders have allocated more than $7 million of the money. They initially set $1.6 million aside as a reserve, but commissioners said Wednesday that they were willing to keep a smaller amount in reserve and use more of the funds for other purposes.

All members of the commission said they are supportive of the Friendship Center’s request for $100,000 to help the organization repurchase its former building, across the street from its current location.

Gina Boesdorfer, the Friendship Center’s executive director, said they’ve seen a large increase in the number of clients they serve, and they’re outgrowing their current space.

“We were already seeing the increase before COVID, but COVID obviously put a pause on a lot of people's ability to access services, and now we're really seeing the impact of the last several years,” she said.

Boesdorfer said they already have an agreement to close on the property by the end of December. She said they are raising funds both for the purchase and for doing needed upgrades to the building.

“Funding from the city of Helena would be a huge impact,” she said. “It would be a quarter of the purchase price and it would really get us a long way towards having a lot of the funds for the purchase pre-raised, which obviously makes our ability then to be flexible in meeting the needs of survivors that much easier while we continue to fundraise.”

Also on Wednesday, commissioners said they supported putting additional funding toward a city loan program for homeowners making alternative energy improvements, as well as a study on future use of the Memorial Park ice rink warming house. They also discussed investing in the city’s loan program to help property owners install or replace sidewalks, but a majority of the commission said they preferred to wait before doing that, since the city is still working on its broader future plan for sidewalks.

The commission will consider approving a final resolution on these projects at a later date.