By Tim Leeds
Havre has become a hotbed for political meetings recently.
Havre hosted the Montana Districting and Apportionment Commission on Tuesday. Today, David Gibson, head of Gov. Judy Martz's Economic Opportunity Office, is the keynote speaker at today's Havre Area Chamber of Commerce's annual meeting. The Montana Public Service Commission will hold a hearing on Tuesday about the sale of Montana Power Co., and Montana Department of Transportation is holding a public meeting Jan. 26 to discuss how to use funds for U.S. Highway 2.
The PSC hearing, at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Triangle Telephone Cooperative hospitality room, will collect public comment about MPC's proposed sale of its electricity and gas distribution system to NorthWestern Corp. MPC sold its power generating facilities to Pennsylvania Power and Light in 1999.
"If this move is approved, it really puts the existing corporation out of business," said Dave Hoffman, administrator of PSC's utility division.
Hoffman said existing MPC stock would become stock in Touch America, MPC's telecommunications company. MPC would become a wholly owned subsidiary of NorthWestern.
One of the issues in the latest proposal put forth by the two companies is a $30 million credit to customers for one year, and another is a $60 million reduction in stranded costs.
Stranded costs are expenses accrued by MPC, some of which can be charged to customers under Montana law. Hoffman said customers who chose to get their electricity from a source other than MPC agreed to pay for part of the contract price for electrical production even if they didn't use energy from the contracts, which last up to 30 years.
The MPC proposal forgives $24 million in contract prices already accrued, Hoffman said, and reduces the amount remaining in contractual stranded costs from $366 million to $244 million.
The credit to customers would probably come in the form of a reduction in distribution rates, Hoffman said.
The proposal actually has five parties, he added. As well as MPC and NorthWestern, representatives of the Montana Consumer Counsel, representing basic customers, the Large Customer Group, representing customers like large mining companies and industrial users, and a representative of medium-sized users, like major retail stores, were also part of the agreement.
Hoffman said the purpose of the meeting is to collect comments about the agreement, although the terms are between the companies and aren't really up for discussion.
"Essentially what they're saying to the commission is, If you don't approve it as is, you're back to square one,'" he said.
The MDT meeting is being held to discuss what should be done with money Congress appropriated to use on Highway 2. The meeting begins at 9:30 a.m. Jan. 26, and is also in the hospitality room at Triangle Telephone.
Congress appropriated $2 million related to Senate Bill 3, the bill written by state Sen. Sam Kitzenberg, R-Glasgow, directing MDT to seek special funding to widen Highway 2 to four lanes across Montana. Of the total, $1 million of the appropriation is for construction, and $1 million is for conducting studies to prepare for widening the highway.
Kitzenberg said Thursday that he considers the section between Havre and Chinook to be the worst section of Highway 2, and he wants an environmental study begun from Havre to Harlem, since that section would not take much more work than Havre to Chinook.
"My big concern is that we use the money for the (environmental impact statement) so we can start construction in three years," he said. " Because for a four-lane we do have to do an EIS."
It takes about three years to conduct a study before construction can begin. Kitzenberg said if the study isn't done immediately, he is concerned that construction would be delayed by at least six years.
Mick Johnson, administrator of MDT's Great Falls District Office, said the purpose of the meeting is to decide where to do a study. He said he also thinks Havre to Harlem is probably the logical place to start with an EIS.
"We want to determine that everybody's on the same page," he said.
MDT scheduled the Havre meeting to see what local people want it to do with the money. MDT has work scheduled to go out for bid in 2005 to rebuild Highway 2 as a wider two-lane road between Havre and Chinook, and conducting an EIS would put that work on hold.
Conducting the EIS could delay construction of the two-lane until 2008 or 2009, Johnson said.
Kitzenberg said that if MDT builds a new two-lane highway, he doesn't think a four-lane would ever be built.
"The highway department might get everyone so excited about a two-lane, they'll shortchange themselves," he said.
He added that there is no guarantee that MDT will be able to start the project in 2005 as planned. If MDT doesn't have enough money for the project or the money is needed for another project, the Havre East project could be delayed even if the EIS isn't conducted.
Johnson said MDT has $11 million earmarked for Havre East. If that project is delayed, the money would go to another project.
"I try to shift money where the need is, and I know Havre East is a pretty serious need," he said.
The Highway 2 Association is holding a director's meeting following MDT's meeting. The association's meeting begins at 1 p.m. at the Great Northern Inn, and an election of officers will be conducted followed by a discussion of old and new business.
In a press release, the association urged everyone to attend the MDT meeting and let their views be heard.