Like many Mountain Water Company employees, I grew up in Missoula, and like all Mountain employees I am proud to live and work here, providing a crucial service – clean, fresh, reliable water – to neighbors, friends and businesses.
That’s why I am saddened by the tactics employed by the city in its quest to take the water system. Without having a true honest debate on public ownership, the city went straight to court with its attorneys in full attack mode. They have attacked reputations across many organizations – Mountain Water, Carlyle, the Montana Public Service Commission and even Liberty Utilities, our prospective new owner.
But last week the city attorneys took it even further, making false and misleading allegations against our employees’ ability to operate and maintain a reliable water system. While we will have our day in court, with both sides under oath, I believe it’s important to set the record straight on some issues to help the community maintain its trust in us as this process continues.
The recent claims made by the attorneys about our dams exemplify the extent to which the city will go to misstate facts.
The U.S. Forest Service dam classification system they referenced is used to categorize our wilderness dams on the damage they would cause if they failed, not on the condition of the dams, and sets the design standards for the dams. This distortion of facts is compounded by the fact that the city’s dam experts hadn’t even returned from inspections in the wilderness when the attorneys made their presentation to the Missoula City Council.
Further, the attorneys misrepresented another dam, claiming it’s a fish barrier and in poor condition. The truth is the sluice gates are wide open for the fish to swim upstream, there is an effective fish ladder and, as we already informed the attorneys, since the dam is at the end of its life we are working on plans to remove or replace this inactive structure.
As for the “cover up” allegations, our new method of insulating pump house piping keeps condensation from forming on the pipes during the summer and causing corrosion. The attorneys made their allegations to the council the day before they paid contractors $10,000 to actually dismantle one of our pump houses to see what was under the insulation. Clearly, the city attorneys rushed to judgment rather than waiting to get all the facts.
These accusations are consistent with the broader lack of respect being shown to Mountain employees. The attorneys are strong-arming some into signing a “take it or leave it” employment agreement with a 30-day drop-dead date, while leaving others out altogether – contradicting the plan that they represented in their court filings. And the city’s attorneys are again trying to limit the intervention of the employee group in the court proceeding, despite the fact the judge has already ruled in the employees’ favor.
The city’s treatment of local citizens in this process is equally poor. City officials are trying to prove “necessity of ownership” in the court of public opinion in advance of the actual court proceedings by undermining what we do, while not explaining how their plan would be better.
They have yet to show how city ownership could improve on the work already being done by Mountain’s employees.
They have yet to provide a detailed financial plan to show how they would purchase the system, pay all sides’ legal fees, replace a million dollars in lost property tax revenues, continue our annual infrastructure program of more than
$4 million, and continue funding operating and maintenance costs – including employee wages and benefits. And do that all without raising rates.
They have yet to provide the water rates that they will charge our customers, the impact and connection fees they intend to charge developers, and their system extension plans.
It’s time for the city to stop attacking our employees and misrepresenting facts, and instead present detailed plans on how city government would do it better at a lower cost. The mayor owes that to the community and to his fellow citizens at Mountain Water.
In the meantime, we will continue to provide this community with exceptional water service.
John A. Kappes is president/general manager of Mountain Water Company.