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Missoula Water Co.

The Missoula City Council heard an optimistic update on the Missoula Water Company on Wednesday, with most of the good news coming from a new source.

The roles have reversed, attorney Natasha Prinzing Jones noted: The operational update took up 45 minutes, while the legal update just four.

“It is so validating to see the kind of work that’s going on,” Jones said.

Missoula Water Superintendent Dennis Bowman outlined the utility’s progress since the June 23 city takeover.

It has installed around 800 new water meters, cut generator maintenance and valve replacement costs by tens of thousands of dollars, worked to connect subdivisions to 241 new water lines and completed many transition tasks estimated to last months in just two to three weeks — all with fewer employees than Mountain Water had at its highest staffing level in 2012.

“I have been most pleasantly surprised, that in this contentious environment of the takeover, we have not spent any time on issues with that,” Customer Service Supervisor Greg Gullickson said. “In light of everything, I’m very pleased with how things are rolling.”

The utility is taking in a little under $2.5 million per month from around 23,000 customers since the transition, Gullickson said, which is plenty for it to keep upgrading the system as needed.

The direct debit option is up and running, he said, and in coming weeks it will roll out a new customer account portal, likely with emails out to customers explaining how to switch over, as well as a mobile version of the portal.

Members of the City Council were highly appreciative of the water utility staff and their work, praising the smooth transition and how professionally issues such as the direct debit delay were handled.

Next summer, Public Works Director John Wilson said, 15 projects are planned, from replacing water mains, to working on the utility along with the Russell Street construction.

An $8 million investment in upgrades is planned in the next 12 months, he said.

Jones, the attorney, updated the council on the city’s continuing court case to decide how much Missoula will pay Mountain Water for legal fees.

A few months ago, District Court Judge Karen Townsend ordered the city to pay just under $4 million to Carlyle group, less than half of what was asked. Carlyle appealed, and the case is still under consideration.

In a worst case scenario, the payments may be high enough the city would hold a public hearing on raising rates, Chief Administrative Officer Dale Bickell said, but he added they certainly wouldn’t be higher than the rates the council approved when it created the utility.

That was in 2016, and the City Council passed utility rates that matched Mountain Water’s 2014 rates.

After that, the Public Service Commission ordered Mountain Water to lower rates by 6 percent, and the council matched the lower rate when the city took over.

“We were conservative before, and now we can see … that new lower rate is adequate to do everything that we said we would do,” Bickell said.

In the unlikely case the city would bring a rate increase proposal in front of the council, Bickell said, it wouldn’t be more than a 6 percent increase.

Right now, the city doesn’t plan on increasing rates for five years if court decisions go as expected. 

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City, County Government Reporter

Government reporter for the Missoulian.