The more you know 

At what cost is Mountain Water no longer a good deal?

Monday afternoon, the Missoula City Club hosted a debate between city councilors regarding the purchase of Mountain Water. Bryan von Lossberg spoke for it and Adam Hertz against. Moderator Steve Fetveit opened with a biographical sketch of each: von Lossberg worked in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and holds environmental studies and mechanical engineering degrees from the University of Montana and Stanford, and Hertz’s elementary school teacher was in the audience.

That got a laugh. I mention it because a) Hertz is likably aware of the limits of his own expertise and b) pretty much everyone who spoke that afternoon uttered the phrase “I’m not an engineer.”

The exception was von Lossberg. He is a literal rocket scientist, so he did not have to answer every question by avowing his own ignorance. He came to the debate having done his diligence, and his arguments in favor of condemnation were clear-eyed and practical. He could not, however, answer one question:

click to enlarge missoulawater.jpg

Given the revenue advantages the city projects under municipal ownership of Mountain Water, at what point does the total cost of condemnation exceed the projected advantage to ratepayers over a 20-year bond? In other words, at what price does Mountain Water stop being a good deal?

This number definitely exists. Presumably, von Lossberg does not think we should buy Mountain Water for $100 billion. That would be a mistake. And Hertz would probably agree that we should buy it for $3.50. So where within these boundaries does a smart buy fall?

This question was put by a handsome devil in a sling, whose steely gaze might have commanded respect had he not worn a name tag. But he had already been wrong by name in a public forum before—first by saying we should buy Mountain Water and then by saying we shouldn’t, when it was clear both times that he didn’t know what he was talking about.

That’s why he was there—also because the City Club lets you serve yourself cheesecake, even after the lady at the cheesecake table starts to recognize you. But mostly it was to know the price at which we stop saving money by buying Mountain Water.

Von Lossberg did not know. Hertz also did not know. They did not provide estimates.

That strikes me as a problem. Here we had a debate between elected leaders with positions on whether the city should buy something, and neither could say what price would change his mind. Almost everyone in the room had an opinion, and it started with “I’m not an engineer” or some other reminder of what the speaker did not know.

I observed these proceedings from a table in the back with two engineers. They worked for Mountain Water, so lawyers and good sense forbade them from saying anything particular. They were clear about that as soon as I clicked my pen.

Both thought 40 percent leakage sounded worse than it was, since most water systems leak comparable amounts. They differed over whether Mountain Water’s infrastructure was worse than most but agreed it was worse than Billings’. Each has young children and favored no change in ownership so they might enjoy the greatest chance of keeping their jobs.

At one point, von Lossberg remarked that he had installed a version of Mountain Water’s system control software on his home computer so he could start running leakage numbers himself. “I have that software,” the engineer next to me said quietly. “I run those numbers.” But of course he couldn’t show them to me, lest I write about it and wreck his life.

What we had on Monday was a clash of ignorances. It was hard to say which smart person was accidentally right, since each spoke well with neither certainty nor authority.

Hertz argued that the city would wind up raising rates to cover the costs of condemnation, which sounded likely although he couldn’t prove it. Von Lossberg wisely pointed out that city ownership was the cheapest route to capital for long-needed infrastructure improvements, but he couldn’t say how much money we would save. Both believed their positions made good financial sense, and neither could say how much.

An argument is over when nobody can think of what would change his mind. Monday’s argument ended much as it began: with the cases for and against buying Mountain Water looking as strong as you can make them with no final offer, no rate projections, no equation to draw the line between good idea and bad.

For the engaged citizens of Missoula, it’s daunting to try to form an opinion with so little concrete information. But it’s alarming that our leaders already have. The city of Missoula seems determined to buy Mountain Water at any price, and the deal we get will either be good or bad. There has to be more than one way to find out.

Dan Brooks writes about politics, culture and the importance of other people knowing more at combatblog.net.

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