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HELENA (AP) - NorthWestern Energy will spend $56 million _ up $8 million _ on distribution and transmission projects in Montana this year and hire two dozen new employees despite its financial problems, a top official says.

NorthWestern filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy last fall.

The company plans to hire 19 new field workers to boost its utility distribution operations in Montana this year and is in the process of adding five more regulatory staff members, said Mike Hanson, the company's chief operating officer.

Twelve journeymen and seven apprentices to work out of the division offices in Butte, Bozeman, Helena, Great Falls, Billings and Missoula. They would be part of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union bargaining unit.

"We completed a comprehensive staff analysis and identified areas where we want to do better or have a better response time," Hanson told the Montana Public Service Commission.

In addition, the company is adding five new people, including one attorney, to its regulatory affairs division. Most would be based in Butte but some in Helena. Two of the jobs have been filled, he said.

NorthWestern now has 995 employees, about half of whom are based in Butte. The utility serves its nearly 300,000 electricity and 160,000 natural gas customers in Montana.

Gary Drook, chief executive officer of the parent NorthWestern Corp., proposed an answer to recurring PSC concerns about whether NorthWestern is properly maintaining its transmission and distribution system. He suggested the company hire an independent third party to evaluate the situation.

The third party could compare how NorthWestern's maintenance efforts stack up against those of comparable utilities, Drook said.

"I know of no other way to give you assurances that the plant is being operated in a sound and responsible manner," Drook said. "It will help to reassure both you and I."

PSC Chairman Bob Rowe, D-Missoula, praised the idea, suggesting the staffs of the utility and commission could discuss it further.

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