Some 73 percent of survey respondents – all voters in the city of Missoula – support the city’s bid to buy Mountain Water Co. “at a fair price” and run a municipal utility, according to poll results released Thursday by the mayor’s office.
“This survey confirms what I’ve been hearing from citizens for the last three years,” Mayor John Engen said in a statement. “We need to own our own water company. This information helps me and the Missoula City Council as we continue our fight to own this company before it’s sold to yet another private firm accountable to investors who don’t care a bit about Missoula.”
The city intends to use results as evidence to support its eminent domain case pending against Mountain Water and owner The Carlyle Group in Missoula County District Court. Most council members have supported the mayor’s pursuit of public ownership, and in a statement, council president Marilyn Marler said she was pleased with the poll results.
“I and most of my council colleagues have long supported public ownership of Mountain Water because we know that’s what most of our constituents want,” Marler said. “The survey results strongly support our instincts.”
One councilor, though, has been critical of the mayor’s decision to pursue condemnation and has pressed for transparency in the process. On Thursday, Councilman Adam Hertz questioned the language and composition of the poll – albeit not the support for municipal ownership the results indicated.
“I’m not at all surprised that people think owning the water company is a positive thing,” Hertz said.
However, he said the questions don’t get at the manner in which the city takes ownership. Do people believe condemnation is fair? Do they agree the city should fight a global investment group in court to take its property?
“For me, that’s the bigger question,” Hertz said. “Should the city go through a multimillion-dollar condemnation process with no clear outcome and potentially a huge multimillion-dollar tab for the taxpayers? That wasn’t the question, but that’s kind of the reality.”
The survey polled 510 active voters via land lines and cellphones in the city of Missoula. The poll by Harstad Strategic Research of Colorado was conducted May 11 through May 15 and has a 95 percent confidence interval of plus or minus 4.3 percent.
“The strength of support was surprising to me,” Engen said. “What I hear from our pollster is those numbers of support are high for just about anything, and in Missoula, we sometimes disagree on things. So this is a case where there seems to be tremendous public support around the notion of municipal ownership of the water company.”
The survey cost $35,000, and according to the city, it “is part of the legal expense authorized by the city in its case against Mountain Water and Carlyle and will be added to acquisition costs.”
The mayor said the city also will be paying some expert witnesses – although not all – to testify on its behalf.
After making several unsuccessful offers last year to buy Mountain Water from global equity firm Carlyle, the city last month filed an eminent domain proceeding to force a sale in court. The case is pending, and Carlyle officials have said the case has no merit.
Carlyle took ownership in 2011, and infrastructure fund managing director Robert Dove has argued the firm has improved the water system since with $11.6 million in investments. On Wednesday, Carlyle also announced Mountain Water will be on the market as part of its plan to sell Western Water Holdings, a trio of water companies.
In the survey, one question asked was the following: “Think for a moment about the water system in Missoula that delivers drinking water to homes and businesses and maintains local water pipes and storage tanks. Do you think this water system in Missoula should be owned by the city or should be owned privately by a corporation? And do you feel strongly about that or not?”
According to results, 65 percent of respondents believe the water utility should be owned by the city, and of those, 48 percent feel strongly; 20 percent of those who answered questions believe the system should be owned by a corporation, and 13 percent of those feel strongly.
Respondents also were asked to rank their level of concern from zero to 10 about criticisms raised of the city’s bid to purchase the water company. Reads one: “It will cost the city of Missoula – and taxpayers – over $60 million dollars to purchase Mountain Water Company. There is nothing wrong with our water system, and this money would be better used to deal with actual problems in the city – like fixing the streets and improving our parks.”
Those surveyed offered the following concern levels to that question: 22 percent noted the highest concern, a 10, and 31 percent had the lowest concern level, from zero to four. (22 percent said 10; 4 percent said nine; 13 percent said eight; 13 percent said six or seven; 15 percent said five; 31 percent said zero to four; and 2 percent didn’t know.)
Another criticism read in the survey is this: “According to their own public records, the founders of the international private equity firm that owns Missoula’s water system actually earned $250 million dollars each last year. The profits that come from Mountain Water company in Missoula are helping to pay these obscene salaries – instead of being invested back into the water system in the form of maintenance and improvements.”
In response, 29 percent of people asked said they had the highest level of concern about those profits. (29 percent said 10; 10 percent said 9; 12 percent said 8; 16 percent said six or seven; 13 percent said five; 17 percent said zero to four; and 2 percent didn’t know.)
Engen had earlier declined to discuss the poll or share the questions being asked. On Thursday, he said the attorneys who worked on the survey didn’t want to influence respondents by releasing information in advance.
“Really, this was all about being independent, arm’s length, and making sure that we got an accurate random sample that truly reflects public opinions,” Engen said.