By Ellen Thompson/Havre Daily Newsfirstname.lastname@example.org
Havre City Council members say they support fellow council member Terry Schend's proposal to annex the business area west of town, including the possible home of a new Wal-Mart store. The area extends west to the weigh station where U.S. Highway 2 meets U.S. Highway 87, and is already served by city water and sewer services.
It would be the biggest annexation since the 1970s, said city public works director Dave Peterson.
"There's still a lot of work to be done," Schend said. "It takes some footwork, it takes some agreement with the people in those areas."
Annexation was already on the minds of several council members when Schend proposed it Monday by reading a statement in the public comment portion at the end of the City Council meeting.
Council member Pam Hillery said she happened to have a copy of Montana law regarding annexation in front of her when Schend made his proposal.
Hillery said she was thinking about it because of news that Wal-Mart is looking at opening a store west of Kmart.
"It's one thing to get the money for the actual service you provide, but a city is not just its services. We have to keep everything going and that's done through taxes," Hillery said. "We should have done something with the (Holiday Village) mall and with Kmart much sooner, but now's a good time."
Council member Allen "Woody" Woodwick said he spoke to Mayor Bob Rice about the possibility a couple months ago and learned that the city officials have been discussing it for more than a year.
"I don't think we should just be limited just to the west," Woodwick said. "We should also look into annexing out east."
Council member Tom Farnham said annexation is an issue that comes up frequently in the city and did a few years ago when the city tried to annex a part of Highland Park that's not in the city, but failed.
"About the only additional revenue (source the city has) is annexation," he said.
The city could more easily annex the area west of town now because for many years it has included a condition in its service agreements that the user of the service waive its right to protest annexation, Farnham said.
Peterson said that in the past five years, the city has gone a step further. In order to contract for city services, a resident or business must sign a petition to be annexed by the city. If Wal-Mart moves in, it would have to sign that agreement and be annexed if the City Council chose to.
"I think this would be a pretty easy annexation," Farnham said of the area west of town. "Especially at a time when the city is so strapped (for) cash, we should welcome everybody at the fringes to join our community."
County officials have said they would support annexation as long as the city was willing to take the bad with the good.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said the city needs to do its research to evaluate exactly what the drawbacks would be.
Rice said the city is already aware of some financial risks.
"That area out there has the worst sewer lift stations in the county," Rice said. "We bring it in, we own it. We pick up trash, we do all the things city residents get."
Rice said the city would also have to purchase another garbage truck in order to serve that area. A truck would cost about $140,000, he said.
"We're trying to do this methodically. We'll be having some open meetings on this. We'll be having some discussions on it," he said
Rice said the city has learned from the failed annexation attempt a few years ago, before he became mayor.
"This time we're going to have all our ducks in a row if we do it," Rice said.
When Schend spoke to the council, he also pointed out several areas in which he said the city was shouldering the burden of providing the county with services and not being fairly compensated. He named the Havre Community Pool, services from the city shop and law enforcement.
Peterson said Tuesday the county is billed for any work done by the city on county infrastructure.
A 1974 agreement says pool costs should be shared equally by the school district, the city and the county.
For at least 15 years, the county has paid the city $19,000 to operate the pool. City clerk and finance director Lowell Swenson said the county should be paying about $50,000 in order to meet the agreement that it pay one-third of the costs.
Council members agreed that the question of pool payment should be revisited.
Swenson said Havre Public Schools also pays $19,000 toward the pool's operation every year.
Hill County Commissioner Doug Kaercher said he had not seen any request for more money come before the commission and could not comment on it until he saw a formal request.
Havre City Council members said they did not know the background of Schend's comments regarding the city police providing service in the county.
Hill County Sheriff Greg Szudera said he recalls one instance last month when city police were asked to provide assistance, something he says happens from time to time. He said deputies also responded to a bar fight in the city earlier this month after being requested as backup.
State mutual aid law allows agencies to assist one another, Szudera said. The liability, should a city officer be hurt responding in the county, by law, falls on the agency requesting help, he added.
Havre Police Chief Mike Barthel said, "We do help each other out."
At a meeting of the Hill County Commission Thursday, when the county decided to propose mediation over whether to house an enhanced-911 dispatch center in the city or county, Commissioner Kathy Bessette said there were other issues affecting the relationship between the city and county.
"A lot of discussion ends up being not discussion. Emotion gets in there," Bessette said while speaking in favor of having an outside party mediate the e-911 dispute.
"I think it goes even further than e-911," she said. "I think we could air out a lot of issues. ... I think there needs to be some mending or healing or something. I think it goes way deeper than e-911."
City Council President Rick Pierson said he was surprised that Schend brought up some of the issues he raised at Monday's meeting. "Are they issues that need to be addressed?" he asked. "I believe they need to be addressed."
Hillery said she would like to find out the details of the pool agreement to be sure the city is not overburdened, but she said she is concerned about the relationship between the city and the county.
"What I would like to see as a council member is that we not get into an even deeper dispute with Hill County," she said.
Havre Daily News reporter Larry Kline contributed to this story.