Montana’s $2.7 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds will have an impact on communities large and small in every corner of the state. And starting Monday, Oct. 4, the person overseeing the distribution of those aid funds will be a longtime Jefferson County resident.
Clancy resident and former state Senator Scott Mendenhall will begin work as Montana's ARPA program director on Oct. 4. Mendenhall is taking over from Mike Foster, who is retiring Sept. 30.
ARPA is federal legislation enacted in March that provides funding for state and local jurisdictions to respond to the coronavirus pandemic emergency and bring back jobs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor and Industry. Distribution of the funds across Montana is prescribed in state House Bill 632. The state's ARPA program director is tasked with facilitating and leading the distribution, alongside the governor.
HB 632 also called for the creation of four state-level advisory commissions: infrastructure, communications, economic transformation and stabilization and workforce development, and health. The commissions were established under Foster, who has been the ARPA program director since May.
"While I'll clearly have a level of influence in ARPA, it will all be within the bounds of how the legislature wants [the money] spent," Mendenhall said of his new role. He emphasized that it would be inaccurate to say he decides how the money from the bill will be used, because HB 632 comprehensively determined that.
For example, under the infrastructure portion of the bill, nearly $127 million was awarded to 86 different water and sewer projects across the state, including in Montana City and Clancy. The allocation process for those funds was prescribed in the bill: Applications were submitted by local government entities, ranked by the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation according to criteria set out in the bill, and reviewed by the Infrastructure Advisory Commission. As the director, Foster oversaw this process, which is what Mendenhall will do with similar fund disbursements in the future. Mendenhall said the governor has the ultimate authority in where the funds go.
Mendenhall was recruited for the position by Gov. Greg Gianforte. In a press release announcing the changing of the guard, Gianforte said: "Throughout his tenure in the legislature and decades of experience growing companies and responsibly managing budgets in the private sector, Scott is a proven leader who knows how to get the most out of every dollar and prioritize Montana taxpayers."
Mendenhall will take a six-month temporary leave from his current job as the deputy director of the Montana Department of Revenue to fill the position—his appointment to which he said came out of the blue. He said Gianforte offered him the position because he wanted someone with business experience in addition to government experience to assume the role. Mendenhall said this was because Gianforte's Montana Comeback Plan is "all about economic development and raising pay for families."
Mendenhall has a long history of leadership both in government and in the private sector. He served four terms in the Montana House of Representatives before being termed out in 2010. He was the Republican floor leader during the 2009 session and chaired the Business and Labor, Transportation, and Economic Affairs committees.
His record in business is even longer. He worked as an MSU Extension Agent in Jefferson County from 1989 to 2005 with an emphasis in local economic development. There, he helped found the Jefferson Local Development Corporation, serving as manager from 1997 to 2005.
After that, he was the manager at Marks Lumber in Clancy from 2005 to 2009, where he assisted in strategic planning and growing the business during a downturn in the wood products industry. He's also a managing partner in his family's farming and ranching business in Wyoming, where he is originally from. Since 1992, he and his wife have owned Sound Health Imaging, which has locations in Helena and Butte.
Despite Mendenhall's acceptance of the role, he doesn't pull any punches about his feelings toward ARPA. "To be frank, had I been in a position to vote on whether or not to do ARPA, I would have voted 'no' because I have very strong feelings about the federal deficit and long-term debt situation."
He said that he took the role to ensure that, despite concerns of having to pay higher taxes as a result of ARPA, future generations will ultimately benefit from the funds.
Outside of his professional schedule, which affords him very little free time these days, Mendenhall is the lead guitarist in Helena-based rock band Vinyl City. He's also involved in his local church, rides motorcycles and enjoys hunting and fishing.
Above all though, his family is what's closest to his heart. He and his wife, Audrey Mendenhall, have four kids, all out of the house, and spend much of their time with them.
His two youngest are in college, while his two oldest have families of their own. One of his daughters, Simonie Mendenhall, a former student athlete at Jefferson High School, recently set the record at Doane College in Nebraska for most blocks on her volleyball team, and Mendenhall makes time to stay involved in her athletic achievement.
He and his wife are also selling their current house and building a new one—a time-intensive project even for people with the freest of schedules.
While Mendenhall has spent much of his adult life living on one end or the other of Jefferson County—he used to live in Cardwell—he says Clancy is the family's "forever place."
"It's a beautiful place to live, we have wonderful neighbors and long-term friends here," he said.