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ROBERTS - Wholesale power rates have increased by more than 20 percent this year for the Beartooth Electric Co-op, but members will likely only see a quarter of that increase in their power bills, according to co-op general manager Ron Roodell.

Roodell, speaking during the co-op's annual meeting in Roberts on Saturday afternoon, said cost-of-service models indicate a rate increase of 5.2 percent to consumers will still give the co-op an adequate margin. The rate increase, which should run $4.66 per month for the average user, is to go into effect on Oct. 20. It comes nine months after members saw their power bills jump by 30 to 40 percent last winter.

Co-op members were also told that long-term financing for the proposed Highwood Generation Station appears probable within the next few months.

"We've been here three times," conceded co-op president John Prinkki after the meeting. "There are no guarantees."

Prinkki, who remains optimistic, added that once the co-op has long-term financing, members will no longer be assessed a monthly surcharge to cover costs associated with Highwood.

The Highwood Station, formerly proposed as a coal-fired plant, now calls for a 120-megawatt natural-gas facility to be built in three phases of 40 megawatts each.

A draft air quality permit for the project was issued in late August and the comment period runs through Sept. 30. To date, Beartooth has paid $2.7 million toward the project and has a current monetary obligation of $1.6 million.

While the co-op moves forward with Highwood, it has also contracted 10 years of power through PPL Montana.

"We'll be able to have relatively affordable rates for the next 10 years," Prinkki said.

The membership split votes when faced with a decision regarding the role of the Wyoming Public Service Commission and Beartooth's Wyoming members. Rate regulation for the 400 Wyoming members, who constitute about one-quarter of Beartooth's membership, has fallen under the auspices of the WPSC. (The Montana Public Service Commission has no authority over electric cooperatives.)

At issue Saturday was whether to maintain the status quo or remove the Wyoming members from WPSC authority. Those who favored the change cited the time and expense entailed when the PSC is involved in rate changes.

"You're fighting for the right of the co-op to vote on who regulates their rates - the duly-elected board or the Public Service Commission in Cheyenne," said Sean Taylor, a speaker from Wyoming.

But a contingent of Wyoming and even some Montana co-op members countered, claiming the PSC offers oversight and a public record that can be accessed.

Scott Brazil of Clark, Wyo., described himself as a "died-in-the-wool" conservative who recognizes the need for some government involvement.

"You need some oversight over monopolies," he said.

Ultimately, Beartooth members voted - by nearly a two-to-one margin - to change former policy and exempt its Wyoming members from WPSC regulation.

Besides the Wyoming controversy, the question-and-answer period drew comments about the need for transparency, particularly regarding Beartooth's membership in Southern Montana Electric, the "cooperative of cooperatives" that is spearheading the Highwood project. Arleen Boyd of Fishtail said she got nowhere when she requested Southern's bylaws.

"I had to get them from Yellowstone Valley Electric Co-op in Billings," she said. "Why should a member have to go get bylaws from another co-op?"

Several speakers noted, however, that communication within Beartooth had improved since the last annual meeting. Roodell and Prinkki gave assurances that efforts to improve communication would continue.

"One of the reasons we weren't transparent before was because no one was asking questions," Prinkki said.

Prinkki, whose term expired this year, was re-elected to his position on the board. Joe Kern of Absarokee was elected to fill the position vacated when long-time board member Mary Lou Flanagan opted not to run again.

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