By Jerome Tharaud
In the coming year, Havre-area residents can expect new county weather stations to detect drought, new DSL broadband Internet access in town, and an influx of Canadian students lured to Montana State University-Northern by a 50 percent reduction in nonresident tuition for Canadians.
These were among the plans unveiled by city and community leaders at the third annual State of the City luncheon, which was held at the Havre Vets Club at noon Thursday. Eight community leaders spoke to the group of about 80 people who attended.
The speakers included Mayor Bob Rice, Hill County Commissioner Pat Conway, Montana State-University Northern Chancellor Alex Capdeville, Havre Public Schools Superintendent Kirk Miller, Northern Montana Health Care president/CEO David Henry, Hill County Electric and Triangle Telephone Cooperative general manager John Magyar, Bear Paw Development Corp. executive director Paul Tuss, and Havre Area Chamber of Commerce executive director Debbie Vandeberg.
The meeting, which lasted about an hour and a half, was broken up by a litany of good-natured jokes about emcee David Greenwood. Greenwood was responsible for alerting the speakers when they had exceeded their five-minute time slots.
The biggest public response of the luncheon was applause to Magyar's announcement that Triangle would bring wireless high-speed Internet service to Havre. Currently, Magyar said, Triangle has put in high-speed service elsewhere in the county, but not in Havre because Qwest lines will not support the service.
This year, Magyar said Triangle would offer customers in Havre a package that combines both high-speed Internet and phone service so they can switch from Qwest.
He also said extended-area telephone service in the area from Chester to Malta and south to the Missouri River is being proposed to the Public Service Commission. That would eliminate many long-distance charges.
"When you're in Rudyard or Kremlin (now), you can't call anywhere without it being a distance call," Magyar said.
Hill County Comissioner Pat Conway announced plans to install five new weather stations around the county to fill gaps in the National Weather Service's monitoring system. The stations, Conway said, would be used to test ground moisture to determine drought areas in the county. The information, he said, would be helpful in getting disaster payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency.
Capdeville said that Northern next fall will reduce nonresident tuition by 50 percent for Canadians to offset the exchange rate.
"Hopefully we'll be more attractive to Canadians," Capdeville said, noting the number of students graduating from Canadian two-year colleges. "They're looking for opportunities to come to the U.S. to get an upper-division program."
In addition to plans for next year, the meeting included an update about ongoing projects.
Rice said the Havre water treatment plant will finally be completed.
"The city of Havre is going to get a good product, and I think you're going to be proud of it," Rice said.
But he also suggested the matter could end up in court.
"We're going to go into a litigation process pretty soon," he said. The city began upgrading the plant in 2000, but the contractor, Williams Bros., did not complete the project on time even though its deadline was extended, city officials have said.
Rice then turned to smaller successes, like street sanding and the installment of more trash receptacles and park benches. "I'm finding as mayor in this town, the little things do mean a lot," he said.
Henry described the "perfect storm that's hitting health care right now," a combination of decreases in Medicare reimbursements, rising liability insurance and technology costs, and staff shortages.
In the face of these things, Henry said, the hospital's new dialysis unit, scheduled to open in June, would double the dialysis program's capacity to about 30 patients from its current 15.
Henry also said the state may pass a law requiring hospitals to charge a hospital bed tax. The tax, which is similar to a bed tax that's been charged in nursing homes for years, would aim to help the state meet the 1-to-3 match required for federal hospital funding.
Miller said enrollment in Havre Public Schools is down about 70 students this year.
"The fortunate thing about that is that we're used to that, and we're good at it," he said.
Vandeberg said the 23rd annual Festival Days weekend event in September would have a Great Northern Stampede theme this year, and that the proposed multipurpose center has an uncertain future. Area leaders have been hoping Congress will approve $1 million for feasability studies and engineering for the center, but "We don't know where that is," Vandeberg said. In an interview today she said, "It appears at this point we will not be getting that money," but added that there is a task force still working on the project.
Tuss told the luncheon gathering that the corporation's microbusiness lending program still has more than $600,000 available for businesses with fewer than 10 employees and less than $500,000 in annual gross sales. Tuss also reported that the corporation had created or saved 304 jobs in the last several years with investments of nearly $15 million.
The luncheon was sponsored by the Havre Daily News, the Rotary Club and the Chamber.