By T.J. Pyette
The city of Havre doesn't want to be second class.
A state law says a Montana city that has fewer than 10,000 people has to be classified as a second-class city. Havre's 2000 U.S. Census was 9,621.
"There is a stigma to being second class," Mayor Bob Rice said Monday. "I don't want that to be attached on my watch."
City officials are trying to figure out ways to get around adopting the new designation. The Havre City Council on Monday night delayed the first reading of a resolution reducing the classification of Havre from a first class city to second class.
Rice asked the council to table the resolution until January to give city attorney Jim Kaze ample time to re-evaluate the state statutes that call for the resolution.
Montana statute 7-1-4118, enacted in 1895, reads: "Whenever it appears by the census taken by the United States, the state, or otherwise that the population of a city of the first or second class has decreased so as to be insufficient in number to entitle it to be a city of that class, the council must thereupon, by resolution declare that such city be reduced to a city of the second class or town as the case may be."
Rice said one of the main concerns surrounding the reclassification stems from another statute that could possibly be interpreted to mean that the city, after reclassification, would have to hold a new city election.
"The city would incur a great deal of expense in holding a new election," Rice said today. "We want to take our time as we interpret these statutes."
Another possible effect of the reclassification is that as a second class city, Havre would not have to retain a paid fire department.
Rice said Havre intends to keep its fire department as is.
"We will not go there," he said. "That's not even an option to be discussed."
Rice added that he has doubts about the census. "I think we have more than 10,000 people in Havre," he said.
The 1990 U.S. Census showed Havre had 10,811 residents.
The doubt about the new census offers the city another option, said Alec Hansen, executive director of the Montana League of Cities and Towns.
"They could do their own census," Hansen said today.
Hansen added that the city of Havre also could consider proposing new legislation that might add some flexibility to the statute, an option he said the city of Glendive chose when faced with changing its designation from second class to third class. At the city's request, the Legislature changed the law to allow third-class cities to maintain a paid fire department.
Hansen and Rice agreed that the age of the statutes poses a problem because they have been in effect for so long that they are cumbersome to work with.
"These were put into effect when there were annual elections," said Rice.
Hansen said he thinks the city of Havre is facing an unintended consequence of an antiquated statute. He added that the next step for the city might be to seek an opinion of the state attorney general's office.
"This is something that just hasn't come up. It's kind of unprecedented," Hansen said.
Hansen said he thinks Havre officials are doing the right thing by taking their time and exploring all avenues.
"They're checking their options and taking their time and this will help them to come up with the right answer for the city of Havre," Hansen said.