RED LODGE — In a split vote, trustees of the Beartooth Electric Cooperative passed a resolution Friday authorizing an increase in the funding limit — from $150 million to $300 million — for the Highwood Generating Station in Great Falls.

John Prinkki, who represents Beartooth Electric on the boards of both Southern and SME, two umbrella co-ops that have been involved in the Highwood project, asked that the resolution be contingent on having no detrimental information come to light during an SME meeting scheduled for Monday.

Although Beartooth's resolution did not specifically refer to the Highwood plant, increasing the debt limit would seem to pave the way for construction of phase two of Highwood. The 46-megawatt phase one is projected to come online this fall. Phase two would increase capacity to 120 megawatts. A total cost for the two projects, including interest, was roughly estimated between $493 million and $595 million.

The board's 5-2 vote — board members Arleen Boyd and Roxie Melton opposed the motion — came following a marathon meeting and in response to letters representing the views of more than 100 co-op customers. The letters and opinions seemed to reflect a fairly evenly divided membership.

"It's been pretty much a dead heat from the people I've talked to," trustee Martin Kimmet said.

Much of the board's discussion was based on the brief time frame allowed for the decision and the degree to which due diligence had been performed.

Boyd asked that the board postpone its decision until a third-party analysis was conducted.

"We could resolve this by stepping back and being cautious with our members' money," she said."It's not just the argument of 'why now?' but should we do it at all? What do our members get out of this?"

Melton questioned why the cooperative was interested in building more power generation when it is selling excess power at a loss.

"We're drowning in power, and I'm afraid it's going to take us down," she said. "What's the difference in waiting another year?"

Those supporting the resolution cited several reasons for moving forward now. The price of materials is down, construction crews are hungry and roughly $1.2 million would be saved in added costs, they said.

"I think it's a great time to build a power plant," board member Al Nordahl said. "Gas prices are lower than we ever thought they'd go."

Regarding due diligence, those in support of the resolution viewed the past few years of involvement — which included input from Southern's consultants, engineering companies and financiers — as more than adequate analysis on which to base their decisions.

The board's resolution will be reflected in a vote during a meeting of Southern's co-op members Tuesday afternoon.

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