Dennis Bowman wasn't convinced the city of Missoula could run a water utility at first.
He wondered why the city was trying to buy the system — and why it would take the owner, global equity firm The Carlyle Group, to court over it.
The former Mountain Water Co. employee also wondered if the city would hold the same ethic the late Henry "Sam" Wheeler held before he sold the water system to Carlyle. Wheeler believed in providing good customer service and a quality product.
When The Carlyle Group sold the water system to Liberty Utilities, the subsidiary of Algonquin Power and Utilities Corp. of Canada, Bowman saw the writing on the wall.
Liberty started slashing Mountain Water's maintenance budget, he said.
It planned to reduce medical benefits to personnel, he said.
Liberty even canceled the maintenance contract for emergency generators that were supposed to keep the water system running during power outages, Bowman said.
"Everything was being cut," Bowman said.
When he asked about the situation at work, Bowman heard the city was to blame, so he asked his lawyer to reach out to City Hall and talk with Mayor John Engen. The communication changed his perspective of the man who had led the condemnation effort and won the eminent domain case against Mountain Water in Missoula County District Court.
"I realized the mayor is not the devil and he is not the worst person in the world," Bowman said.
Now, the man once skeptical of the city's plans for the water utility is in charge of running the operation. Bowman, superintendent of the utility now called Missoula Water, was the first employee who left Mountain Water Co. to become a staffer at City Hall.
"I came to the realization that this was best for the community, for the city of Missoula to own their own system," Bowman said.
Greg Sorensen of Liberty Utilities disagreed with Bowman’s characterizations of the company’s tenure in Missoula.
“I would say that all of that is inaccurate and incorrect,” Sorensen said. “I would say that we absolutely did not slash any maintenance budgets. We did not slash any maintenance activities.
“We continued to operate the system in a reasonable and prudent manner and in compliance with all laws, rules and regulations.”
Liberty got crosswise with regulators right out of the gate, though. The company bought Mountain Water Co. without approval from the Montana Public Service Commission, and commissioners fined Liberty $150,000 for the unauthorized purchase.
Under municipal ownership, Bowman has $6 million a year to start fixing pipes and repairing dams and improving the water utility he'd seen neglected. Bowman had jumped to city employment in February, and he was anxious to get back to operating the water system.
"I'm excited 'cause I enjoy these challenges," Bowman said. "I have total confidence in the employees over there, my knowledge of the system, and being able to get back to really serving this community the way they deserve."
People always fear the unknown, he said, but he believes colleagues at the water division who were skeptical of public ownership will come around as well.
Because of the litigation, the employees and city officials could not have direct contact until after the official title transfer. All employees offered contracts accepted them, but until the sale, the city and Mountain Water staff had communicated through lawyers.
"We will have a handful of people who have reservations about the mayor, but once they meet him and have been able to talk with him like I have, they'll understand what an outstanding leader he is and how much he cares about the community," Bowman said.
Joked Engen: "I've been through a horn removal process."
Said Bowman: "I state facts."
Also, Bowman said: "The majority of the employees are going to enjoy this."
Bowman worked for Mountain Water and its owner Park Water Co. for 25 years. He started his career in the industry in California and moved to Montana in 1996.
First, Bowman worked as a crew leader fixing leaks and doing maintenance. Then, he moved to meter reading and became a lead. Eventually, he earned a promotion to district foreman, and finally, to superintendent.
"I enjoyed working for Mr. Wheeler and his thoughts of serving the community and providing a good quality product and great customer service," Bowman said.
Park Water was comprised of three utilities, including the one in Missoula. Wheeler sold Park to The Carlyle Group, which continued to put some money into the system, but then, Carlyle sold to Liberty, and Bowman saw a dramatic change.
The company didn't fill open positions, he said, and it started asking Mountain Water to cut its maintenance budget.
It hiked administrative fees to 30 percent, 40 percent, even more, he said. Under Wheeler, he said, Mountain Water tacked on a standard administrative fee of 5 percent to a capital improvement project, but Liberty billed $14,000 for one project that cost just $7,000.
"Actually, it was all about the profit," Bowman said.
So Bowman left for City Hall, losing some friends along the way. He'd wanted to say goodbye at Mountain Water before he left, but management did not let him talk with his coworkers given the legal issues still playing out in court, he said.
"It was hurtful," Bowman said.
At the same time, he believes relationships will mend, and he made the decision to jump early because he believes in public service.
"I enjoy serving the community, and I enjoy the employees," Bowman said. "And I felt that it was best for me to come over early to try to make the transition for the customers and the community and the employees over there ... the smoothest transition as possible."
Bowman said he doesn't anticipate any noticeable changes in the water system right away, but he's working on a plan that prioritizes improvements as part of the budget process.
The employees are dedicated to running the water system and know how to do it, Bowman said; under city ownership, he said they'll have the resources.
"I've been very fortunate to experience the public ownership side since February, and it's the right thing ... We're going to get everything fixed," Bowman said.
He's moving forward with the full support of Mayor Engen.
"This system is now in the public's hands, and it's in good hands from an operational standpoint," Engen said.
"I don't know most of the rest of the employees of Mountain Water, but I can tell you that my experience with Dennis Bowman and Greg Gullickson (who also came early to work for City Hall) and the character and the work ethic and the commitment to the community that they demonstrate gives me nothing but faith that this system, given the resources the city can provide, will operate better than it's ever operated."