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Lobbyist hired to speed up funding for local work believes MUC's funding requests are reasonable

WILLMAR -- Willmar Municipal Utilities received $300,000 from Congress last year to study burning corn cobs along with coal in the local power plant because the funding request for the co-generation project was reasonable, the utilities' federal lobbyist says.

But lobbyist David Turch of David Turch and Associates says he can't predict how Willmar Utilities' latest requests totaling $2 million will fare this year.

"The federal process is so dynamic and so complicated that this early in the game it's hard to guess, except to say the leadership with (7th District Rep. Collin) Peterson ... is such that when he asks for something the chance of receiving it is fairly good,'' says Turch.

"So you have a tremendous ally in Peterson, and then working with (Sen. Amy) Klobuchar, who is really doing well for Minnesota, I think gives us a good shot,'' said Turch. "We don't know anything till we get through the appropriations bills out of the House, then the appropriations bills out of the Senate, and then we get the conference (committee), and then we'll see.''

Turch, a native of Minnesota, accepted an invitation and met for the first time Monday noon with members of the Municipal Utilities Commission. The commission and the City Council have each paid half of Turch's $54,000 annual contract for the past four years.

Turch began lobbying for the city in March 2003 in hopes he could accelerate the process of obtaining federal funds for local projects such as the new wastewater treatment facility.

In an interview, Turch said he enjoyed his first visit with the commission. He said the utility has done extraordinarily well in Congress because the requests are reasonable, make sense and are more easily sold in Washington.

Of six requests, he said Klobuchar has requested $1 million to implement the co-combustion project, $500,000 for a fuel storage building, and $500,000 for a power plant efficiency improvement program. He said Peterson has requested $1 million for the co-combustion program.

The Tribune asked if the national emphasis on renewable energy affect Willmar's requests.

"We would hope that it would, but the bills are still in flux. You never know if the Congress is going to turn out in the end. We'd hope that it would,'' he said. "We'll see.''

Bruce Gomm, utilities general manager, said Turch helps protect Willmar's interests in Washington.

"There's a lot of different laws that are passed and lot of different special interest groups,'' said Gomm. "Having a lobbyist in Washington D.C. with the connections that he has helps us get to the congressmen and talk to them about our concerns and help them know what the issues are that affect us.''

In other business, Jeff Kimpling, manager of electric services, updated the commission on the utilities' program of placing certain neighborhood overhead power lines underground. The underground conversation project began in 1979.

From 2000 to 2008, the utility reduced the number of customers served by overhead lines from 937 -- mainly residential -- to 458 out of 9,000 customers, he said.

Underground conversion improves reliability by removing overhead lines from outages caused by tree branches or storms, said Gomm.