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Miller Creek ranch owner feels bullied by Mountain Water
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Miller Creek ranch owner feels bullied by Mountain Water

Man wants city of Missoula to own water system

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Ed Janecek does not want the Carlyle Group or a foreign company to own Mountain Water Co.

The ranch owner in Miller Creek believes in the rights of the private sector, but he wants the city of Missoula to own and operate the water utility.

In 2011, Janecek and his parents, Jean and Milo, granted the local water company an easement through their property at below cost. A few months later, Janecek said, he alerted the company to a possible leak on the property, which has received water free of charge since the 1980s.

The result? Mountain Water threatened to shut off water to the 60 acres that are home to his elderly parents and, sometimes, to Janecek, and it filed a complaint against him before the Montana Public Service Commission.

The battle is costly, and Janecek said if he is going to fight “high-handed” policies, he’d rather go up against City Hall and have the chance to vote the people running the system out of office.

“I’m actually a strong private sector guy, and I don’t necessarily think that it’s great that a municipal entity operates any system,” Janecek said. “However, I think the water system is unique and different from the rest, in that you’ve got the most basic of natural resources controlled by a multibillion dollar, multinational hedge fund that’s based on the East Coast.”

***

As far as Mountain Water president John Kappes is concerned, Janecek doesn’t get to have unpaid water, and neither does anyone else. The Public Service Commission authorizes the company’s rates, and “we do not have a free water rate.”

“This isn’t a question of who owns Mountain Water,” Kappes said in a statement. “This is a question of whether or not the other customers on our system should have to subsidize the costs to serve water to Ed.”

Nonetheless, ownership of Mountain Water is in the spotlight in Missoula. The city of Missoula is trying to use eminent domain to force a sale of the water company to the city. But on Friday, a Canadian utility announced it had signed an agreement to purchase Mountain Water from the Carlyle Group, a global equity firm.

In Janecek’s case, Mountain Water has asked the PSC to approve termination of services to the family’s Miller Creek property. Mountain acquired the water system serving that area in 1991.

“When Mountain acquired Clark Fork, there was no indication in the records of the company that water service was being provided … or that there was a connection to the Janecek property,” read the complaint.

However, in September 2011, Mountain responded to a call on the property. In doing so, the company discovered the service line running from its main to the Janecek property, “and that it was leaking.”

“Mountain advised the Janeceks that it had no record of providing service to their property, that they needed to apply for water service, and that they needed to fix their leaking service line,” the complaint said.

The water company sent written notifications to the Janeceks, but the property owners disregarded them, it said.

“As of the filing of this complaint, the Janeceks have … failed to apply for water service,” the complaint said.

***

Ed Janecek considers the complaint both improper and an insult.

The former water company, Western Water, had “inflicted (damage) on the property for years,” and the matter ended up in a complex litigation, according to Janecek’s answer to the PSC.

As part of the settlement, he said, Western Water agreed to provide water to the property free of charge. The agreement for free water in perpetuity isn’t explicit in the written contract, but Janecek said the deal was clearly understood by those involved.

In affidavits signed in 2012, three parties involved in the settlement, William Curran, Dennis Curran and William Mytty, attested to the following: “The express intent of the … settlement agreement was to provide unmetered, free water to the entirety of the Stewart (now Janecek) property.”

Janecek, a title lawyer, said he wouldn’t have bought the property if that water supply wasn’t in place.

“The parties have relied upon and operated consistently with that agreement since the 1980s, and the Janeceks specifically relied upon its terms when purchasing the Miller Creek property,” read the answer.

***

Ed Janecek also views the complaint as an insult because the family granted Mountain Water an easement at below cost.

“We kind of feel that it’s in the no good deed goes unpunished category,” Janecek said.

In spring 2011, he got a call from an independent engineer hired by Mountain Water. The engineer asked if the Janeceks would sell them an easement so they could expand in the Linda Vista area, he said.

“The gentleman that called me seemed nice enough, but I explained I certainly didn’t have any interest in doing anything with Mountain Water Co. for several reasons,” Janecek said.

When the family bought the property in 1997, it was infested with noxious weeds, and Janecek was told he didn’t have a prayer of eradicating the infestation from his fields.

He proved the critics wrong, though, and he didn’t want to battle the weeds again. The easement would mean heavy equipment disturbing the soil, the upended earth would cause weeds to explode again, and Janecek didn’t have faith the company would make things right.

“Just by reputation, I’d heard folks that had worked with Mountain Water refer to them as bullies,” Janecek said.

Then, he took the request to his father, Milo Janecek.

***

Milo Janecek happened to be lifelong friends with a man who was president of the National Water Well Association.

Starting in the 1960s, the two traveled the world drilling wells for communities that needed water, and Milo Janecek gained a passion for providing water to people, his son said.

When Ed Janecek relayed the engineer’s request to his father, the elder Janecek turned him around.

“He said, ‘Actually, let’s help those guys out … let’s not be obstructionists,’ ” the younger Janecek recalls.

In the back of his mind, Janecek remembered being maybe 9 years old and watching Mountain dig out a neighbor lady’s mature lilac bushes, some seven feet tall. When she called on the company to replace the trees as agreed, he said, they brought tiny potted lilacs.

So Janecek was skeptical, but he respected the senior Janecek’s perspective, and he put in the call to the engineer: “Over my general objection, my father wants to help you out and give you an easement for less than what it’s worth.”

As predicted, Janecek said, heavy equipment rolled onto the property, and the weeds sprouted, but Mountain paid the bill to spray them.

The easement meant taking out a couple of mature ponderosa pines, but the lilac episode didn’t replay itself. He said the engineer personally purchased autumn blaze maples to line the long ranch driveway.

“I, for a brief period, felt that I had misassessed the situation,” Janecek said.

***

Then, he made the phone call that ultimately led to the complaint before the PSC.

Janecek had watched a small pond form on the property, and he couldn’t quite figure out if the water was coming from surface runoff or from a leaky line. The pond was good for the horses, but Janecek knew Mountain had a high leakage rate.

“I thought it was not right to waste the water if it was a leak, and it wasn’t surface runoff, and that Mountain Water would also be appreciative of fixing one of the many leaks in their lines,” Janecek said.

So he called, and when a staff member came by, he said, the conversation lasted five minutes tops.

“He couldn’t have cared less about the leaky water. He said, ‘it’s not on our grid,’ and immediately left,” Janecek said.

Roughly a week later, Janecek opened a letter from Mountain Water that said unless the Janeceks installed a meter, the company would shut off the water.

“My parents occupy (the property) and my father is providing care for my mother who has a serious health ailment,” he said.

***

In a written response, Kappes said Mountain Water hasn’t shut off water to the property for a couple reasons. For one thing, it’s waiting on word from the Public Service Commission, and secondly, it’s giving Janecek time to produce relevant documents.

“We continue to work with Ed to try and resolve this issue,” Kappes said.

He said since the 1980s, all new Mountain Water customers have had to be metered. Most of the time, Mountain’s front line employees handle customer complaints, but if a matter escalates, the company may take issues to other agencies.

“As necessary, we involve the PSC for service and rate issues,” Kappes said. “We are committed to serving this community the best way we can.”

***

As the complaint was pending, Janecek had one more unpleasant encounter with the company. He was out of town, and ranch manager Libby Taylor was watching the place.

Taylor got notice Mountain Water was going to be working on the water system, and she said she needed to check with the owner first. “They said, ‘It’s not negotiable.’ ”

The next morning, a crew came onto the property with a backhoe and started slicing through the fence to a horse pasture – not on its easement, Janecek said – for animals that are old or need special attention.

“At the point where the wire cutters came out, there was no option,” Taylor said. “I had to go up there because we have horses out here, and all I could see was them getting tangled in the barbed wire fence and slicing their foot off or getting out.”

She kept the horses in the field, told the crew of five or so to leave, and threatened to call the Missoula County Sheriff’s Office. Taylor watched one of the crew members also make a call, and then the workers left, too.

***

Janecek plans to file a motion to dismiss the complaint by Mountain Water, but his experiences have left him feeling bullied and wanting the city of Missoula to own the company. In a recent court case, however, other citizens have viewed the city as the bully for unlawfully taking their land.

Janecek said water is different than a road right-of-way, especially because Missoula has such a “pristine natural resource.”

“Here, you’re literally talking about a resource that people need, and if they don’t get within three days, they expire,” Janecek said.

Milo Janecek, who loves to sit behind his home in winter and watch coyotes pounce on field mice, said he has no regrets about granting the easement.

Reach Keila Szpaller at @keilaszpaller, at keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or at (406) 523-5262.

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