Critics fumed and local officials were dumbfounded Monday when Gov. Brian Schweitzer affirmed he'll tie the release of frozen state grants to local support for Otter Creek coal tract leases in southeastern Montana.

The executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center called it a tactic that smacks of Third World dictatorship.

"This money is supposed to be used for schools and he's trying to issue it as a slush fund to spread around the state to curry favor for his administration and essentially buy or blackmail communities' support for coal," said Jim Jensen of MEIC.

In an hourlong morning meeting with Missoula County commissioners that kicked off a daylong tour of western Montana towns, Schweitzer said he doesn't want "any community to use coal money that didn't want to use coal money."

"If there's a community in Montana that says, ‘We absolutely do not want to use coal money to build anything in our community,' I will respect that."

At issue in Missoula is $330,000 to widen and repair Big Flat Road. The project became contentious last year when some area residents objected, and several voiced their objections Monday to the governor. It was one of 50 projects around the state spurred by federal stimulus money and authorized by House Bill 645 that weren't completed by the time Schweitzer ordered the freeze in January to offset plummeting tax collections.

The governor indicated the release of some of the $3.8 million is imminent because he's "95 percent certain" a check for $85.8 million from Arch Coal Inc. for rights to develop the Otter Creek fields will be forthcoming on April 16.

"I'm here today to say this: I haven't decided which projects and how much to cut," he said. "I can cut up to $2.1 million, (but) I believe our situation has improved a great deal, really because of that $85 million."

Schweitzer told a room of three dozen people that he wanted to see letters of support from community leaders, including the county commission, Missoula Mayor John Engen and state legislators, not only for the Big Flat Road project but for the use of coal money to pay for it.

"The potential revenue from the sale of Otter Creek coal might allow for your project/projects to be funded," Schweitzer said in a letter he signed at the end of his visit. "Please return a letter confirming that you ‘support the use of coal money for the completion of your project/projects.'"

The governor visited Stevensville, Philipsburg, Anaconda and Walkerville later in the day with the same message.

Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss said she was dismayed and surprised by the tactic.

"When somebody called Friday to set up this meeting, this wasn't what we were thinking was going to happen," she said. The county will be drafting a letter of support for the Big Flat Road project in the next few days. "But we're not sure it's going to have everything in it he wants," Curtiss said.

Commissioners and others in the county defended the road project, which has already involved removal of several trees last fall that raised objections. Others said simply issuing load restrictions and lowering the speed limit of 45 mph to 35 mph would serve the same purpose without destroying the rural feel of the road. The county will soon hold a hearing about the reduction of speed limits, Curtiss said.

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Willis Curdy, a candidate for House of Representatives in District 100, maintained there'd been no formal public process when the road project was launched. "What's the larger view for Big Flat Road?" another resident wondered. "We don't want it to be turned into another highway bypass for Missoula."

Greg Robertson, the county's director of public works, said the road has transformed from a country road to one with "urban volumes" of traffic. The safety measures are needed, including improved drainage, repavement and widening of the shoulders to accommodate foot and bicycle traffic.

"Whether this money comes through or not, we are certainly going to try to do something to improve the integrity and the safety of the road," Robertson said.

Jensen and MEIC have been among the most vocal opponents of leasing the coal reserves at Otter Creek. Jensen said he doesn't believe the development will ever occur. "But if it does and coal is produced, the revenues generated are constitutionally required to go to support schools," he said. "That's true for the $86 million bonus bid as well. "What the governor is doing with this strong-armed tactic, which is reminiscent of the typical Banana Republic dictator, is violating his constitutional duty to the (Coal) Trust," Jensen said. "He has an absolute obligation and fidelity to the trust, and not to have what's known as divided interest."

Schweitzer's administration has also been accused of stepping out of bounds by withholding the $3.5 million in grants. Greg Petesch, the Legislature's chief lawyer, said last week he doesn't see any legal basis for it. The governor disagreed, maintaining it's within his rights to cut up to 10 percent without the Legislature's consent.

Contact Kim Briggeman at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.