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Dave Olson, Published November 14 2010

Gloves off after Moorhead Public Service move irks customers

A decision by Moorhead Public Service to give $20,000 to the Moorhead Youth Hockey Association has at least one Moorhead City Council member and a number of her constituents questioning the move.

Diane Wray Williams, who represents the 2nd Ward, voiced her views at a recent Moorhead Public Service Commission hearing at which the commission took comment on a proposed 4 percent hike in electric rates for 2011.

“I was passing along some constituent calls,” Williams said.

“They (constituents) feel that’s quite inappropriate to take that kind of contribution out of their electric rates,” Williams added, referring to the $20,000 Moorhead Public Service has pledged to the Moorhead Youth Hockey Association to sponsor a Hockey Day Minnesota event Feb. 12.

For those who follow the sport, Hockey Day Minnesota is right up there with the Minnesota state high school hockey tournament, said Bill Schwandt, MPS general manager.

The event will be broadcast to more than 2 million households in the region on Fox Sports Net North, according to Schwandt.

Commission President Ken Norman said the sponsorship will provide Moorhead Public Service positive exposure from the Dakotas to parts of Iowa.

“It will also showcase Moorhead,” Norman said. “So, from that standpoint, if somebody is looking to site a business, or buy a home, maybe this will encourage somebody to at least consider our community.”

The hockey association had requested $35,000.

Schwandt’s recommendation was to donate $10,000.

Commissioners ended up giving $20,000 and directed Schwandt to approach Missouri River Energy Services, a company that supplies electricity to Moorhead Public Service, about pitching in as well.

So far, MRES has agreed to provide $8,000, according to Schwandt.

Schwandt said MPS officials wanted to show that the city utility is strongly behind the Hockey Day event in much the same way it supported the annual Power Bowl football contest between Minnesota State University Moorhead and Concordia College.

The utility sponsored the Power Bowl from 1999 until 2007, when a conflict in the teams’ schedules caused the tradition to fizzle out.

The Power Bowl sponsorship cost Moorhead Public Service about $20,000 a year, while another $20,000 came from MRES.

“MSUM and Concordia are two of our largest five customers,” Schwandt said. “They’re so connected to the community itself that it (the Power Bowl) was just a good community event.”

Likewise, he said, the community event aspect of Hockey Day was a major reason Moorhead Public Service agreed to sponsor it.

The venue, he added, will be a good opportunity for the utility to promote energy efficiency and Moorhead Public Service plans to hand out compact fluorescent light bulbs.

The $20,000 donation will be used to finish upgrades to an outdoor hockey rink and to cover the cost of landscaping around the rink to accommodate an expected 3,000 to 4,000 spectators, said Dennis Bushy, Moorhead Youth Hockey Arena rink manager.

He said the big day will include youth hockey games all day long, including a 1:30 p.m. game between the Moorhead High School Spuds and Hill-Murray High School from St. Paul.

A message left for Moorhead Youth Hockey Association President Todd Beedy was not returned.

Williams said she doesn’t think Moorhead Public Service has adequately explained why the Hockey Day sponsorship was important.

“Is it education? Well, it isn’t education if they’re just supporting an athletic event,” she said, adding that she wasn’t a fan of using utility funds to sponsor the Power Bowl, either.

“I thought that was inappropriate,” Williams said.

Council member Mark Hintermeyer, the City Council’s liaison to the MPS board, said he had an opinion about the Hockey Day sponsorship but added that he didn’t feel comfortable sharing it because under the city charter the commission is an independent body that has complete discretion in making budget decisions.

Council member Luther Stueland, who is very selective when it comes to deciding what city spending he will endorse, also declined to give his views on the MPS decision.

Because the utility is helping sponsor Hockey Day Minnesota, MPS customers will be allowed to attend the February event for free.

Schwandt said the plan is to mail ticket vouchers in utility bills, but how many tickets a household will receive is still being worked out.

Norman said that while some have questioned the utility’s sponsorship of a hockey event, others have voiced strong support.

Fellow Commissioner Les Bakke said that out of a population of approximately 36,000, there will be some in Moorhead who, like Williams, disagree with the commission’s decision.

“She’s not the only one,” he said.

Fund for marketing, community support

Moorhead Public Service established a community event marketing program in 2008 as part of what the utility calls its “commitment to community service.”

MPS literature says the program is intended to support programs and events that provide marketing exposure for Moorhead Public Service, advance a public purpose and address community needs.

According to the utility, groups seeking sponsorships should demonstrate a broad base of community support, as well as support from other businesses and foundations.

MPS will not support requests if it is the only sponsor, and it will generally not support events involving: individuals; political campaigns/parties; churches for religious causes; or activities, or causes that do not advance a public purpose.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555