Billings Gazette opinion: Fresh perspective good for Coal Board, state – Aug. 5, 2013

August 5, 2013

Categories: Coal, Editorial, Legislature, Member news, Newspaper editorial

[Note: Tom Towe is a longtime member of Northern Plains Resource Council]

For years, some Yellowstone County leaders concerned about access to coal impact funds have asked Montana governors to appoint a county resident to the Coal Board.

County Commissioner Bill Kennedy and Rep. Margie MacDonald, D-Billings, were among those who asked Gov. Steve Bullock to appoint the first Yellowstone County resident.

“There’s a misguided myth that Yellowstone County is not impacted,” MacDonald said last week.

“We’ve always wanted a voice on the Coal Board,” Kennedy said. That concern grew because the county needs to repair 15 miles of 21 Mile Road that was damaged during construction of the railroad spur for the Signal Peak coal mine. The road carries mine traffic and is a school bus route for Broadview.

Repairing just three miles of the road will cost the county nearly $1 million. The county asked the Coal Board for $350,000 and received a grant of $250,000, the first Coal Board grant received in Yellowstone County since 2007 when the Shepherd Volunteer Fire Department received a $30,000 grant, according to the Coal Board’s website.

Last week, Bullock granted the Yellowstone County appointee request, naming former state Sen. Tom Towe of Billings to the board, along with Crow tribal Sen. C.J. Stewart of Crow Agency and Butte businessman Dan Miles. Bullock also re-appointed John Williams of Colstrip as board chairman.

A Billings attorney and former longtime state lawmaker, Towe is a walking encyclopedia on Montana’s coal severance tax and coal trust fund. His critics recall that in the 1970s, when Montana was on the cusp of major coal mining expansion, Towe sponsored a bill that included a 30 percent severance tax on coal. His bill also proposed the permanent coal tax trust fund, which Montana voters overwhelmingly approved in an initiative. That permanent trust still benefits Montana 38 years later. The coal tax rate was cut in half by a subsequent legislatures, and today is even less for lower-quality coal.

Frankly, we expect that Towe will do and say some things that we don’t like as a member of the Coal Board. But we also expect he will vigorously represent the interests of communities impacted by coal development. Towe told The Gazette he will work to build up public confidence in the Coal Board.

For anyone who thinks the Coal Board doesn’t need more accountability, we note this interesting passage in the board’s March 15, 2013, minutes:

Ms. (Jennifer) Olson (Commerce Department Community Grants Bureau chief) read an internal memo given to the director that described the circumstances that resulted in a negative balance of funds. Ms. Olson discussed how current staff reconciled several project budgets to complete closeout process and begin division tracking of awards and expenditures of Coal Board funding. Through this process, staff discovered that the former Coal Board administrative officer did not keep accurate tracking records nor did she regularly communicate with the fiscal office regarding the award of funds made by the board. Ms. Olson explained that the two projects were not contracted until August 2013. Because of this error, awarded projects were not communicated to the fiscal office, resulting in the inability of funds to be accrued appropriate to fiscal practices that would allow the use of funds awarded from the 2011 biennial projects to be appropriated contracted and used in the 2013 biennia. Specifically, two projects awarded during the 2011 biennia totaling $178,532 (December 2010 award — $160,000 to Northern Cheyenne Tribe and March 2011 award — $18,523 to Rosebud County) created a negative balance and prohibits the board from using any balance of funds reported during previous board meetings. Because the funds were contracted in the 2013 biennia and Commerce accounting staff was not informed of the awards or pending contracts, the funds could not come out of the 2011 biennia appropriation. Instead, the funds would have to come out the 2013 biennia appropriation, which creates a negative balance.”

Chairman John Williams then stated that “the current availability of funds is $0, so no awards would be made” at the March meeting. In June, the Coal Board approved $1.52 million in grants to coal-impacted communities.

Every one of these projects is important to its community. The Coal Board’s challenge is to set priorities among worthy projects and limited funds appropriated by the Legislature — $3.9 million for the present biennium. Towe will take that responsibility for fairness and accountability seriously.

Coal Board grants

The following grants were approved at the Coal Board’s June meeting:

$500,000 Roundup Public Schools K-6 investment.

$270,000 Musselshell County fire response vehicle.

$90,000 for Musselshell water and sewer district improvements.

$48,000 for Melstone swimming pool improvements.

$41,000 Musselshell County Fattig Road extension.

$20,000 Musselshell County multi-purpose building.

$250,000 for Yellowstone County 21 Mile Road repair.

$100,000 Savage Sewer District water project.

$75,000 for Plenty Coups High School energy efficiency improvements.

$70,000 for Big Horn County medical equipment replacement.

$40,000 for Hysham water system repair.

$15,900 for Broadus flood plain study.

$9,000 for Northern Cheyenne tribal water system repair.


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