Havre Daily News
The city of Havre will take another look at joining a huge north-central Montana water system it opted out of eight years ago.
The Havre City Council on Monday night decided to pay a $21,000 "good intent" fee to the governing body of the Rocky Boy's/North Central Regional Water System. As a result, the Regional Water Authority will conduct an engineering study to determine the cost of connecting Havre to the system.
The system, approved by Congress with a $229 million price tag, will bring water from Lake Elwell to at least 18,000 residents across seven counties.
City officials - without a vote by the City Council - decided in 1997 not to join the project, and instead chose to upgrade the city's water treatment plant.
The City Council began reconsidering the issue early last year after residents and members of the Havre Area Chamber of Commerce voiced concerns over the future of the city's water supply.
Council member Pam Hillery said after the meeting the city needs to have the study done in order to make an educated decision about joining the system.
"This is one of the things I think the city has to do to look toward the future," she said.
The fee represents $6 for each water hookup in Havre. It will come from the city's water reserve fund, which now contains $366,000, according to city finance director Lowell Swenson.
City public works director Dave Peterson took issue with using money from the water reserve fund instead of adding the cost to ratepayers' bills.
"I don't have a problem with doing the study," he said. "What I have a problem with is taking the money out of the reserve fund. By taking $20,000 out of there, you're really limiting our ability to repair the system we have now."
The reserve fund is used for operations, maintenance and replacement, he said. The last water line replacement the city undertook cost more than $300,000, he said.
Mayor Bob Rice and Swenson said that adding the $6 fee to water bills would take longer because the council would have to hold several public hearings.
Council member Allen "Woody" Woodwick said using the reserve fund is a quicker way to get the engineering study started. He said he thinks the city should join the system if the numbers add up.
"We need to see what it actually costs when the smoke clears," Woodwick said. "I'm for it if it's cost-effective."
Council president Rick Pierson cast the lone no vote Monday night. He said after the meeting he shared Peterson's concerns about the money coming out of the water reserve fund instead of being added to water customers' bills. He also is concerned about the cost when the city is still paying for improvements to the water treatment plant.
"Do I have a negative view of the system? No," Pierson said. "My problem is, we still have a plant to pay for. I would really hate to see that building go unused. We needed to upgrade that plant. It was in bad shape. We couldn't produce enough water to cover the city's demand, especially in the summer months."
Swenson said today the city took out about $9 million in loans to pay for the plant upgrade and makes annual payments of about $680,000. The construction loan will be paid off in July 2023, he said.
Pierson said he will make his final decision on the project after the study is completed.
"We need to have everything laid out for us," Pierson said.
Annmarie Robinson, a Bear Paw Development Corp. official who is coordinating the project for the regional water authority, said today she is not sure when the study would be completed.
"We'll try and put it on the fast track," she said.
When Havre opted out of the system, the total cost of the project was reduced by $34 million, but Robinson said that is no longer an indication of Havre's cost to join. Engineers have since found ways to cut about $20 million from the total price tag, she said.
"It's not exactly the same type of system. We've changed the type of technology we're using," Robinson said.
Congress has set the total cost of the project at $229 million, and $26.1 million of that will come from state and local funds. Montana has provided a dollar-for-dollar match through the Treasure State Endowment Program, meaning local communities will be responsible for $13.05 million.
Robinson said the water authority has received enough money to complete the design of the intake at Tiber Dam this year.
In other business Monday:
Council members voted to approve three new additions to the Havre Police Department. Ciara Otterstrom of Havre and Derek Mahlum of Wolf Point will go to the Montana Law Enforcement Academy in Helena on April 10. Larry Virts, from Bridger, has already been through the academy.
Rice said he intends to appoint Chris Inman as the new parks and recreation director at the next council meeting. Inman, who runs the Havre Community Pool, has served as the interim director since Dave Wilson stepped down at the end of last year.
The city will upgrade security at its water treatment plant without using taxpayer money. The council voted to accept a bid from Bear Paw Technologies to install security cameras, a new security gate and electronic keypads at the facility. The Bear Paw Technologies bid was $25,345. A bid from Bear Paw Electric for $26,360 was also received. Havre received a grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to pay for the project.