Missoula mayor pushes to buy city water supply


MISSOULA, Mont. - Missoula's City Council wants the public to weigh in on a new push to buy the city's water system. Mountain Water is a privately owned utility and that's not sitting well with Mayor John Engen. Now he's threatening to use eminent domain laws to put the system under city control. This isn't the first time Missoula has tried to acquire mountain water. Ownership of Missoula's water system has been in private hands ever since a Native American named One-Eyed Riley started hauling water from Rattlesnake Creek in the 1800s. That's also how long residents have discussed the virtues of public or private ownership. In 1979 Park Water Company bought the system and it didn't take long for the ownership debate to come to a boil. By 1984 the city was threatening the Park Water Company with eminent domain, but the city lost the fight and Park Water remained the owner. "In the early '80s it was owned by a private corporation that was generally benevolent to the city and its employees," said bond attorney Roy Koegen. "Now it's owned by the world's largest hedge fund." In 2011 Park Water sold the system to the Carlyle Infrastructure Group, a large multi-billion dollar international investment company and the city wasn't prepared to take action, but they did get a promise of first right of refusal if Carlyle elected to sell. Carlyle isn't offering a sale but the mayor is pushing for a deal and if he doesn't get it Engen believes eminent domain will produce different results from the city's earlier attempts. "Frankly this is a fundamental building block of our community," Engen says. "The idea that it's somehow owned by somebody who ain't us just does not make any sense." Engen says the current owners are only focused on making a profit for shareholders and investors. "Our (city) interest is in maintaining and sustaining the system at the lowest possible rate and most effectively for the folks we serve," he says. Council member Adam Hertz says he understands the city's desire to own the utility but he thinks threatening eminent domain is too much. "I wonder why we need to pull the condemnation card and start negotiations from a hostile standpoint," Hertz asked the mayor. Engen fired back that using eminent domain may seem hostile but he says with a group like Carlyle you have to be aggressive. "It forces Carlyle to understand how serious we are," says the mayor. "Quite frankly I think it helps their attorneys understand how serious we are." Engen tells NBC Montana the city will use eminent domain as a last resort but he says he's enthusiastic that the Carlyle group will negotiate to sell the utility to the city. The Missoula City Council will hold a public meeting on the issue on October 21 and public comments are welcome. If you would like to review the mayor's memorandum proposing the city buy the water supply, click here.