Sen. Tester visits Libby to meet with local officials

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Sen. Jon Tester, center right, discusses infrastructure concerns with local officials at Alpine Precision in Libby Friday. (John Blodgett/The Western News)

Broadband internet and natural gas were among the infrastructure concerns local officials discussed with Sen. Jon Tester at a meeting in Libby on Friday, July 27.

The senator held the roughly one-hour meeting at the Alpine Precision machine shop at 34991 Highway 2, a location chosen because he “likes to tour local businesses, particularly manufacturing businesses,” according to spokesperson Marnee Banks.

Attending the roundtable chat were Brent Teske, mayor of Libby; Mark Peck, Lincoln County commissioner; Maria Clemmons, executive director of Northwest Community Health Center; Tina Oliphant, executive director of the Lincoln County Port Authority; Dave Friss, owner of Alpine Precision; Dallas Carr, mayor of Troy; Craig Barringer, superintendent of Libby School District; and Myranda Cravens of the Libby Area Chamber of Commerce. Eureka Mayor LeeAnn Schermerhorn was slated to attend but didn’t.

Promising to let the local representatives “do most of the talking,” Tester invited them to share whatever thoughts and concerns they had about Lincoln County’s infrastructure needs, be they “outside or inside the box.”

Insufficient broadband internet connectivity was a common concern around the table, with Clemmons noting how it can limit not only the provision of new health care technologies but also basic health care operations.

Several others wondered about Frontier Communications’ plans for upgrading such services in the area, pointing out that it received grant funding several years ago to improve rural broadband services in the areas it serves but hasn’t told local officials what it plans to do with those funds in Lincoln County.

Chad Campbell of Tester’s staff noted that a discussion with Frontier, scheduled for July 31 with the commission, would be a good opportunity to raise the concerns and see what next steps might result.

A discussion of natural gas followed. Peck and Oliphant noted the value it would provide in attracting industry to the area, while Barringer said it would cost the schools less to use than heating oil and also be easier to budget for due to its more stable prices.

Other topics the officials touched upon included housing, visitation and mental health.

In a follow-up email, Dave Kuntz, Tester’s deputy communications director, pointed to some of the senator’s ongoing efforts in support of improving infrastructure, including “working to fix a broken USDA rural broadband initiative that will expand high-speed internet access in Libby and other Montana communities” and pushing “for a robust infrastructure bill in Congress.”

Oliphant said Monday via email that Tester’s visit “will better inform [him] as he advocates for Libby at the national scale.”

“It’s so important to have visibility with our congressional delegates for the purpose of education on the issues of our communities,” she said.

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