Havre Daily News
Havre Mayor Bob Rice said Tuesday the City Council should not make a decision on joining a proposed water system for much of north-central Montana until it hears a request from the Hill County Water District to connect to the city's water treatment plant.
"They're going to come to the city of Havre with the possibility of hooking up to Havre's water system," Rice told the Havre City Council at its meeting Tuesday night.
Rice said the information he had about the county water district was "unofficial."
The water district's chairman and two of its board members said today they have heard of no such proposal.
"As far as the city of Havre hooking us on, I haven't heard a word about it," Hill County Water District board chairman Dave Jones said. "To be very truthful, I'm upset that it's all going around and I know nothing about it. There has been nothing said about this at all."
Rice said this morning that he was suprised Jones was not aware of the proposal and would check with his source to try to "clarify the situation." He said he hadn't talked to anyone connected to the county water district, but had spoken to a "reliable source" with another agency.
Rice's comments to the City Council came during public discussion at Tuesday's Havre City Council meeting over whether Havre should join the proposed Rocky Boy's/North Central Montana Regional Water System, which will bring water treated at Lake Elwell to about 18,000 water users on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation and in communities across the region.
Some City Council members and officials said they would be in favor of allowing the Hill County Water District to connect to the city's system if that was a possibility. If that occurred, the city likely would continue to operate its treatment plant and not join the Rocky Boy's/North Central project, they said. They stressed that their discussion was premature because the city has not been officially contacted by the district.
City officials also said the water budget is strained.
Other City Council members said they wanted to hear from the water district, but want to hold a vote soon to decide whether to join the regional system.
"I think at this point, especially, we've brought it to the point in the process where if we don't vote on it, we will have abdicated our duties," City Council member Pam Hillery said today. "At some point, councils have to make tough decisions.
"We need to have a vote, and it needs to be in the time frame that actually allows us to act to join or not join the water authority," she added.
Two water district board members said today they had not approached the city about connecting to its system or heard any such idea.
"I haven't heard any information to that effect," board member Dean Hanson said. "I don't know who (Rice) has contacted or what he's heard."
Hanson is also a member of the executive committee for the North Central Montana Regional Water Authority.
"As far as I know, there's no move in that direction," Hill County Water District board member Larry Fossen said today. "We're going to be joining in with the North Central line."
The regular meeting of the district's board of directors is scheduled for tonight, but any discussion of Havre's water system is not on the agenda. The status of the Rocky Boy's regional water system is listed as an old business item. Hanson said board members are updated about the system's status at each monthly meeting.
At Tuesday's City Council meeting, Hillery questioned whether the issue of joining the regional water system would be voted on at the council's next regular meeting on Sept. 19. Rice said he would not put a vote on the agenda until a public hearing has been held. Hillery said she thought a public hearing was not required because water rates are not being changed.
"You can't tie our hands like that," Hillery said during the meeting.
"I'm not tying any hands," Rice replied. "I'm trying to keep the public informed."
Hillery, who will face Rice in November's mayoral election, said today the public has had ample time to comment. She noted that only two members of the audience spoke during Tuesday's public discussion. About 20 people were in the audience.
"No one is speaking about this issue. They did when we had a public hearing," Hillery said. "For whatever reason, people are reluctant to talk about this more. I think, largely, it's because it's been talked about enough. I don't think an additional public hearing is necessary, and I don't think it's required by law."
The City Council has held two public hearings in the last year on the question.
City Council member Emily Mayer Lossing said during the meeting she was under the impression that Havre had to make its decision to join by Sept. 20. Rice said he had spoken with three people at the regional water authority who told him that day was not a "drop-dead date."
Mayer Lossing said she wanted something in writing from the water authority to show that Havre indeed has more time to make its decision.
Bear Paw Development Corp. deputy director Annmarie Robinson said today the water authority's membership would have to review its bylaws to see if a municipality can be added to the water authority after its annual meeting, set for Sept. 20 in Shelby.
There are two steps remaining for Havre to become a member of the system, she said. At its annual meetings, the regional water authority typically lets in new members, which have to sign interlocal agreements. Robinson said the authority will then ask all of its members to sign on to the system by January.
"It's not a drop-dead date as far as getting water or not, but joining the authority is the next step," Robinson said. "As we outlined in the letter to the mayor, this is the next step. You have to be in the authority in order to get water."
Havre public works director Dave Peterson told the City Council that the city is struggling to meet its water bond requirements. It also has been using the water reserve fund, which has a balance of about $120,000, for operation of its system, he added.
City finance director Lowell Swenson said today that Havre has not met one of its bond requirement for a few years - that it generate a net revenue of 125 percent each year.
All of the bond payments for the improvements to the city's water treatment plant are being made, he said.
Money was taken from the water reserve fund at the end of June to help cover the cost of operation, Swenson said. He could not immediately say how much had been transferred.
Peterson said some portions of the city's water infrastructure are in need of repair, and Havre doesn't have the dollars to pay for those improvements. A new roof for one of the city's water tanks is estimated to cost $145,000, Peterson said. The city has no money to replace any water lines in the city.
"It would be great to have water from Tiber reservoir," Peterson said. "Without infrastructure, water does no good. If you can't put it out in the system, it doesn't do us any good.
"There's just a lot of work that needs to be done on our system," Peterson added. "And the rates are going to have to go up to take care of these issues."
City Council member Dana West asked where the money from the last rate increase had gone.
In April, Swenson said the reserve fund had about $366,000 in it. On April 4, the City Council voted to spend $21,000 out of the fund to have an engineering study done to determine the cost of the city connecting to the Rocky Boy's/North Central system. An engineering study set that cost at $778,000.
Regional water authority members have said that cost could change or even disappear. Some have said that if there is a cost to Havre to join the system, the other communities could help pay for it.
Peterson said that one water line replacement project cost the city $250,000, and said a wet June had decreased the city's water sales. He also said he has heard that damage from Hurricane Katrina is driving up the cost of water lines by as much as 30 percent.
Hillery said today she was frustrated that new information about the city's finances and a possible connection to the Hill County Water District was presented at such a late date.
"Two absolutely new pieces of information came to us last night," she said. "What does that have to do with us making a vote (on something) that will happen 10 to 15 years in the future? This seems to happen at council meetings. We get information that is ground-shaking. When did this all come about? Did we not know this at the last meeting?"