16 Minutes


At least we know investigative journalism is alive in Great Falls, right? It might be on life support, but it's alive. How do we know? The Tribune today printed its long-awaited exposé on the coal plant.


I guess the good news is that I can predict the future. Way back on February 1, 2007, I asked the following question about the Tribune's planned story or stories: "What do you all think? Will the Tribune report this story well, or will they print what they are told by the various 'sides?'" I was right; they reprinted what they were told.

I don't mean to be too hard on Rich Ecke (we already teased him pretty good yesterday). My guess is that his ability to really probe the issues was limited by time and context. So, Mr. Ecke, if you read this, please know I am not trying to hack on your questions as much as the answers (although, maybe, just maybe, a little bit of follow-up might have been nice, assuming it was possible.)

Here are some of the nuggets, though, that really jumped out at me:

Some critics dislike the coal plant in part because the city is backing it. One blogger cited the city's golf course and swimming pool troubles and the Lewis and Clark losses. They cite this as proof the city is incompetent. Does red ink in some of the city's recreational operations, such as the golf courses and Electric City Water Park, indicate the city doesn't know what it is doing? (The city subsidizes the pools with about $550,000 per year, and the golf courses to the tune of nearly $300,000 per year).

Lawton said he "absolutely" thinks the city is run well, but he said running a city is different from running a business. In government, there can be extended discussion periods as officials try to discern what the public wants.

Problems with aging city pools led voters last fall to approve a bond issue of more than $2 million to repair them. Lawton said he thinks the city did a good job responding to the public and producing a solution. Still, "the pools will never really support themselves," Lawton said.

The city is also working to try to bring the golf courses closer to breaking even.
But some public services end up losing money, he said. "We don't make any money at all on police," Lawton said. "It's a tax-supported service."

Did he really just compare a $515,000,000.00 coal plant with the police department? My god.

But let's accept it at face value. "Some public services end up losing money." Ok, how much can this one lose, Manager Lawton? If the coal plant is going to be a "tax-supported service," how much is it going to cost?

And if, in fact, your position is that the coal plant is going to be a self-sustaining operation (like, oh, I don't know...an enterprise fund?), is it not fair to examine the City's track record on enterprise funds? FYI: They're losing money.

And notice how he states that the "pools will never really support themselves?" What about the recent upgrade to the 'water park.' Does that have anything to do with the pools' inability to be self-supporting? Is it really the same to compare a small annual subsidy for public pools to the general fund's making bond payments because management lost its ass on a water park?

Very nice dodge of the question by begging the same question.

Are the city's business customers paying full price to Electric City Power? Is that fair to them?

Electric City Power's business customers are "absolutely" happy with the price, since it's cheaper than buying power from NorthWestern, Balzarini said.

Of course they are, the City is subsidizing it. By the way, why is the City selling power at a subsidized rate to FedEx? Can I get that rate for my businesses? There is also an honesty issue here. At an Airport Authority meeting on December 15, 2006, Mr. Lawton stated unequivocally that "the recipients of the benefit of the reduced or subsidized rates are all public entities." That is apparently not true. FedEx is not a public entity.

If the coal plant is not built, what happens to this debt created by selling power at a loss?

Lawton said Electric City Power would be responsible for this amount, which is approaching $1 million. City taxpayers would not be responsible, he said. Lawton said there has been no discussion with SME about how that amount would be repaid,if the coal plant is not built.

This is just flat disingenuous. Am I the only one who is frustrated with the rosy predictions? Where is the realistic assessment. If Electric City Power can't repay SME, SME will look to the City of Great Falls. That's taxpayers, any way you slice it. His whole statement is based upon his prediction that Electric City Power cannot and will not lose money ever ever ever. (Wait, I thought it was a "tax-supported service?")

What if the city doesn't get financing?

According to Balzarini, if another entity stepped in to buy the city's share of the plant, that group would have to reimburse the city for its costs.

Um, Mr. Ecke? FOLLOW UP QUESTION ALERT!!! What if another entity doesn't step in to buy the City's share of the plant? Hello?

Is it true the city lacks a written agreement with SME on its contributions so far and its 25 percent ownership of the plant? Does that put the city at risk?

"We have been working for months on a development agreement," Lawton said.
"We will have to have every 't' crossed, every 'i' dotted." He called the issue a legitimate one to raise, but said the city has "no risk."

"The city has very significant leverage points in dealing with SME," he added, noting the city would provide water and other services to the project.

"There's no risk," he said. "It simply takes time to work it out. The city is covered."

Every attorney in town just dropped one in his legal briefs. "There's no risk." We're in the process of negotiating a 100 million plus investment contract, we're several million dollars in, and there's "no risk?" Mr. Lawton should have gone to law school, then. He can tell his clients that there is no risk in going forward even though there's no contract in place. If you know a lawyer, folks, call him or her and run this one by the counselor. Hold the phone away so your ears won't be hurt by the guffaws.

As far as our future leverage with SME, we could review the documents providing for the management and governance of SME to see what kind of leverage we have, right? Oh, wait, they won't give them to us.

I read this kind of stuff and I can only hope that we have some people on our City Commission who have enough business and common sense to know that it's crazy.

Oh yeah, and his "leverage" points? The fact that we're providing water? We already have a contract to do so. How will we use a legal obligation we already have as leverage for anything?

Will it be too costly to buy coal cars to transport the coal from southeastern Montana?

No, she said.

Will it take too long for new coal cars to be built for this project?

No, Balzarini said.

Oh. Ok. Never mind then. (Who can argue with analysis like that?)

Would you like Great Falls residents to be able to buy power from the plant?

"The plant does not depend on the city acquiring a residential customer base, period," Lawton said at last Tuesday's meeting. However, he said Electric City Power would like to serve residential customers if it gains state approval.

Again, disingenuous. They're trying to force us to buy power from them.

SME says it has new plans to try to capture carbon dioxide emissions from the plant. How much would this increase the power cost to members, and is there a chance this would be so costly it would make the project unworkable?

"They (SME officials) are committed to developing a program," Lawton said. He said it could involve carbon dioxide capture at the new plant in Great Falls. A boiler
manufacturer is initiating a demonstration project in Wisconsin. Lawton said SME
also is looking at mitigation efforts to lessen the impact of more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a factor cited in global warming theory. Planting trees can mitigate an increase in carbon dioxide.

Mr. Ecke? He didn't answer the question.

After everything is said and done, would this power be cheaper than power that will be available on the open market in 2010?

"Over the life of the plant, absolutely," Lawton said. He said the plant will provide price stability, and "that's what businesses are looking for."

"Absolutely?" Wow. Aside from being my attorney who can assure me, pre-contract, that my transactions will have no risk, I want Mr. Lawton to also act as my broker, because he can foresee price futures.

Is there anything that could rear up in the near future and bite the city, such as a federal ban or cap on more coal plants?

Balzarini said she does not see any such "show stopper" on the horizon. "I don't," she said.

Ok, here it is, the big chance. Convince us that you have assessed the risks and have planned for them. Nah, there aren't any. "I don't" see any, says Coleen Balzarini. Well, together with our superlawyer/superbroker, I guess I am convinced NOTHING CAN GO WRONG.

Why not hold a public vote on whether to build the power plant, an issue raised by legislative candidate Mary Jolley? There's obviously a lot of public interest in the plant.

"What would be the mechanism for voting on it?" Lawton asked.

Again, this is disingenuous. We had a mechanism for voting on it before. The City Commission repealed it.

Is the city's three-minute limit on public comments at commission meetings aimed at muzzling coal plant opponents?

"No, it isn't," Lawton said. The city has some security issues at meetings that Lawton didn't want to discuss.

Oh. Ok.


Skeptical said...

While I'm all for bashing the paper when they deserve it, but for now I'm willing to give them the benfit of the doubt. A lot of the real estate was taken up by the coal plant this morning. Maybe...maybe, in part of this long-awaited series we have heard about, the next installment will be a Q and A with those who are concerned about the pollution or the footprint on the landmark. I'm willing to see if each installment is a regurgitation, or if this is just a launching point for a much deeper, more investigative, total package. I've got my guesses as to which one it is, but I will at least give them a chance to prove me wrong. Also, I noticed some follow-ups that didn't get printed were in the online version...which was much larger than what was printed in the paper...though those were the same type of nonanswers as was in the paper


WolfPack said...

Why wasn't this asked By Ecke of Lawton or Balzarini?

Question: What experience or qualifications do you have that make you fit to oversee a power generation project of this size or qualify you to competently answer any of the questions I’ve asked today?

Answer: None, but I did sleep at a Holiday Inn Express last night.

GeeGuy said...


I did not mean to be too hard on the Tribune. As I noted, I think Mr. Ecke's "ability to really probe the issues was limited by time and context." The question is what happens now. Are they going to push for satisfaction, or are they done because all of their "questions" have been "answered."

And I linked to the online version. It did have more information.

free thought said...

Not exactly hard hitting stuff when they are prefacing questions with statements like "Some officials have described Great Falls city government as a well-run outfit that balances the budget and is envied for its efficent form of government." Sounds more like sucking up. Just ask the questions.

Anonymous said...

Ok, here it is, the big chance. Convince us that you have assessed the risks and have planned for them. Nah, there aren't any. "I don't" see any, says Coleen Balzarini. Well, together with our superlawyer/superbroker, I guess I am convinced NOTHING CAN GO WRONG.
I would add "JUST TRUST US"! After all we are the ones who KNOW ALL and took away your right to vote on the matter.....