Don't look now, but election season has arrived. We know this because our neighbors' yards are filled with campaign signs, our email inbox is filled with solicitations for donations and our schedule is starting to fill up with candidate interviews for endorsements (look for 'em to hit these pages in mid-October). During the first batch of those candidate interviews all anyone wanted to talk about was water. Specifically, the candidates pointed to Missoula City Council and Mayor John Engen's pledge to purchase Mountain Water Co. from the Carlyle Group as their main priority, if elected.
At Monday night's council meeting, Engen, who's running for re-election, officially opened the water talk spigot by introducing a draft ordinance that would authorize negotiations with Carlyle Group and look to finalize a deal within six months. If negotiations fail, Engen said he would "pursue condemnation," otherwise known as eminent domain.
By suggesting a time limit and threatening legal action, Engen essentially dropped a cannonball in the middle of Carlyle Group's dainty pool party. (We'll let that image sink in for a moment.) The global equity firm has said it's not interested in selling Mountain Water, but that doesn't seem to matter. Substantial local interest and current market value (and maybe those upcoming elections) do.
"Management of that fundamental resource should not be the province of a private corporation beholden to distant investors or stockholders, but rather a public utility," said Engen in a memo that accompanied his draft ordinance. "I, and many other City of Missoula elected officials and citizens, strongly believe that a community's water system is a public asset that is best owned and operated by the public, through municipal government."
It's hard to argue with Engen's logic. Locals already pay more for water than in any other Montana city. The average metered water user in Helena, for example, pays roughly $41.49 a month. In Butte, it's about $37. In Billings, $35. And Missoula? Metered water users in single-family homes pay on average $43.95. And with the Carlyle Group at the helm, odds are that trend will continue. In fact, just seven months after the firm purchased Missoula's water supply, Mountain Water asked the Public Service Commission for permission to bump up rates an additional $2.61. They made a similar request, which was approved, in 2010.
Engen's announcement certainly made a splash, but he's only just initiated what may be a long and contentious process. A public hearing on Oct. 21 will be the next chance to gauge whether his bold move will sink or swim.