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People board one of Mountain Line's new buses during an event to show them to the public in November at Mountain Line Headquarters. The buses were put in service in January along with new routes and zero-fare services.

Warm fuzzies for Mountain Line and snow plow drivers.

Cold pricklies for Mountain Water Co.’s claim to considerable legal fees in the condemnation case.

Monday, the Missoula City Council heard all those points of view, and then some, during its short regular meeting. The same day, buses started running fare-free, and the mayor and several council members praised that and other changes at Mountain Line.

Councilman Jordan Hess said the transit agency also added evening service on lines 1, 2, 6 and 7, so he was able to ride the bus to the council meeting. In fact, Hess said, evening service means more people have the opportunity to attend night meetings and participate in local government.

“I’m very pleased with that change,” Hess said.

During public comment, Phil Perszyk praised the mayor for his leadership in the zero-fare pilot program and estimated it could increase ridership at least 50 percent, maybe more. Mountain Line’s administration had long opposed the idea, he said – because it would increase the number of passengers and possibly require buying more buses.

“Amazing story, but true,” said Perszyk, member of the air quality advisory council.

However, he said more riders on the bus would mean fewer in cars. That means less traffic, better air quality, and less wear on expensive roads.

Engen passed on the compliment to others including Perszyk, and he lauded the work of other large equipment operators: snow plow drivers. Monday, the city had seven plows running at 3:30 a.m., and then 13 plows at work from 6:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.

“We had things in pretty good shape until it started to rain,” said Engen, who thanked people for their patience. “Then, it got pretty ugly.”

In his comments, Engen also addressed the legal costs in the city’s condemnation case against Mountain and owner The Carlyle Group. Just because the water company and global equity firm run up a big legal bill doesn’t mean the city will have to pay all of it, the mayor said.

“The fact is that we could certainly be liable for legal costs associated with the Mountain Water condemnation, and we expect to be responsible for some of those depending on the way this goes,” Engen said. “However, it’s not as cut and dried as, these folks rack up the bills, and we pay the bills.”

State statute MCA 70-30-305 says the following about costs: “When the condemnee prevails either by the court not allowing condemnation or by the condemnee receiving an award in excess of the final written offer of the condemnor … the court shall award necessary expenses of litigation to the condemnee.”

The law defines “necessary” expenses in part as “reasonable and necessary attorney fees, expert witness fees, exhibit costs, and court costs. Reasonable and necessary attorney fees are the customary hourly rates for an attorney's services in the county in which the trial is held.”

So far, the bill for all parties comes to nearly $3.5 million, according to a tally of their estimates. Engen said the city’s portion so far, $1.3 million, has been well worth it. He said the city's lawyers are winning motions in court, and their research resulted in an engineering study that confirms for the first time the utility under private ownership “is maintained below industry standards.”

“So your attorneys are doing good work. It’s expensive and will continue to be expensive,” Engen said. “But the alternative is worse and far more expensive over the long haul.”

In an online site about condemnation, Mountain Water defends its record. The company notes it isn’t going to waste the community’s money by buying new equipment that’s not actually needed.

“We have great maintenance programs and experienced, professional technicians who help this community get the most out of the equipment we buy,” the site said. “We have an ongoing replacement and asset renewal program that replaces equipment before it becomes unsafe or unreliable.”

At the meeting, the council also gave its final approval to changes in bicycle regulations including some code cleanup. Bike licensing is no longer required, although the city will continue to provide the service; the city also may remove a bike that’s been abandoned for more than five days, even if it's locked.

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Higher Education Reporter

Reporter for the Missoulian