Coal Power Plant Owes Big Horn County Millions Of Dollars

Jul 20, 2017

Pictured: BNSF coal passes downtown Hardin on the former CB&Q.
Credit Paul Enenbach / Flickr Creative Commons

A coal power plant owes $2 million in property taxes to Big Horn County in southern Montana.

Billings Gazette reporter Matt Hudson has been following this story for nearly a year, and shares insights on the latest in late payments.

Officials for the city of Hardin issued $12 million in revenue bonds back in 2006 to support construction surrounding the Hardin Generating Station, owned by Rocky Mountain Power and operated by Colorado Energy.

City officials planned to pay off those bonds through tax increment financing–which is essentially an investment in projected increases of area tax revenue as a result of supporting new business.

So if the coal company does well, this is a pretty excellent deal for the city of Hardin. 

But it didn’t. Rocky Mountain Power filed for bankruptcy in April 2012.

Then, last September, Billings Gazette reporter Matt Hudson reported on the city of Hardin defaulting on those bonds they issued to Rocky Mountain Power.

As his story went to print, Rocky Mountain Power cut Big Horn County a check it owed–but just one.

“The same day as I was interviewing the county treasurer, the company made their 2015 tax payment with 2014 still outstanding," said Hudson.

Now the company is behind again – on both 2014 and 2016.

Hudson says he was interested in reporting on this  company again, which went to print today, to not only get an update on whether or not Rocky Mountain Power was caught up on payments, but also because of a bill from the last legislative session that was recently signed into law.

According to the Missoulian, it's a law that enables a taxing jurisdiction to sue to collect delinquent property taxes once the bill surpasses $250,000 or more.

“And so I was curious if Big Horn County had anything in the works to utilize that particular bill or that new law," said Hudson. "And it seems they haven’t so far."

So Hudson looked into it further, and filed a public records request with Big Horn County.

“I mean, my goal was basically to determine – If these taxes weren’t being paid by the power plant company, where would that money have gone? And so those were the records I asked from the county, and the vast majority of that money would’ve stayed within the tax increment financing district," said Hudson.

That means most of the money owed by Rocky Mountain Power was planned to go toward the city of Hardin because the city has just one urban renewal district eligible for tax increment financing.

See: 2009 Growth Management Plan for Hardin, Montana

Hudson found out in his records request that Rocky Mountain Power’s failure to pay these property taxes could impact the city of Hardin’s general fund, which support things like infrastructure projects–roads, snow plowing, government building maintenance.

And it could also affect Hardin’s six public schools, including a Kindergarten Readiness Center, and how much money those institutions will have to work with.

The Gazette’s record request shows over $240,000 were destined for public schools by Rocky Mountain Power’s 2014 and 2016 property tax payments. 

Moreover, the city could certainly use the money. Earlier this year, city officials canceled a state swim meet planned to take place in Hardin because of the pool’s condition.   

“It’s nothing dire, I mean they still host local events there and things like that, but it’s also something they really want to take care of," said Hudson. "It was mentioned that they might even think about asking  for private donations from community members and I think that’s just another area I highlighted where the school system has financial needs as well.”

The Hardin Generating Station, and its owner and operator, did not return YPR’s requests for interviews Thursday.