Please join city commission candidates
at a casual meet-and-greet at Baker Bob’s Big Stack Bakery, 112 Central Ave.,
this Thursday, Oct. 1, from 5-7 p.m.
At a Great Falls election forum last week, several candidates referred to the city's supposed loss of "millions" of dollars in what they say is the ill-advised pursuit of energy self-sufficiency.
Our memory is long enough to include the circumstances that led to the city's effort and the way the Legislature pulled the rug from under the city's original plans.This past week, the City Commission heard a report from Fiscal Services Director Coleen Balzarini that the city is getting set to write off a portion of the almost $2.3 million it has invested in pursuit of a power plant east of the city by the Southern Montana Electric Generation & Transmission Cooperative.She said a yet-to-be-gauged portion of the investment was specific to trying to build a coal-fired plant and would have no application in the new plan for a gas-fired plant. The balance, though, would be applied to proceeding with the gas-fired plant. The city, through ECP (of which Balzarini is executive director), is a partner in SME, along with five Montana electric co-ops.Some commission and mayoral candidates and other area residents say the city has no business adventuring into electricity generation and transmission — traditionally the realm of private enterprise in Montana.City Commissioner Mary Jolley makes just that case, compellingly, below.There's no denying the city has dipped a toe — maybe even a whole leg - into untested waters, but we still don't fault the city for making the attempt.The city's problem was that the rules kept changing after ECP was set up almost four years ago.All the same, if a significant portion of the investment still will go toward the proposed gas-fired plant that received its preliminary air-quality permit last week from the state, and if construction of that plant leads to a stable supply of affordable electricity for the city and its ECP customers, then the investment won't have gone for naught.There's little doubt the proposed Highwood Generating Station — burning natural gas instead of coal — would be a boon for the area's economy and tax base.Whether the city of Great Falls should continue as a direct investor in the plant is not as clear.The picture should clarify substantially within a month.In that time frame, we can expect a report by the consultant hired by the city to evaluate ECP's prospects.There are signs the venture has turned a corner toward profitability; we hope the report by consultant Burns & McDonnell confirms that.Also, Sept. 30 is the deadline for commenting on the proposed gas plant's air permit and related environmental assessment.Clearly, the city needs to do a better job of making the case for being a power provider.As with any investment, the city needs to continue to evaluate the risks and rewards of its ECP investment as circumstances continue to change.If it finds the risks outweigh the benefits going forward, the city needs to be willing to pull the plug.If the potential benefits still justify the risk, the city needs to do a better job outlining those benefits to taxpayers.