Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative's contract to buy power from a wood-burning power plant at Prairie Wood Products expires at the end of this year.

That means the regional power company can stop buying power from Prairie Wood at 16.567 cents per kilowatt hour and replace it with 2.9 cent power from Bonneville Power Administration.

All told, that will save OTEC a projected $9 million in 2006 28 percent of the company's cost for power.

What OTEC has yet to decide is how to handle the savings.

A dominant theme has emerged: the potential for consumer rate reductions of 10 percent or more. That would put money back in the pockets of households and businesses reeling from rising fuel costs.

OTEC could also reserve some of the savings as a hedge against future rate increases.

That, too, sounds like a smart idea. Putting money back in people's pockets, and keeping it there, will help household budgets and the local economy.

However, the OTEC board shouldn't totally dismiss the concept advanced by some members of the Baker City Council: that OTEC take a more active role in economic development efforts.

We would not advocate for signing over ratepayer money to local government to spend or squander, as the case may be.

Nor should OTEC feel obliged to participate in projects that won't realize a return for the company. Economic development isn't philanthropy.

But it might behoove the co-operative to support projects that would bring new electric use online in Baker City or Prairie City, or La Grande, or Burns with either cash or in-kind services above and beyond OTEC's existing line extension program.

Ultimately, a rate reduction is the most egalitarian form of economic development the co-op can engage in at the present time. A rate reduction would benefit ratepayers to the extent they pay rates. And that means more money available to cover fuel costs, or buy movie tickets or pillows, or pay the dentist.