A year into ownership of Missoula’s water utility, the city has spent $3.8 million to replace nine water mains, transferred 91 customers from flat to metered rates, and hired 11 employees to enhance services for customers.
“It hasn’t always been smooth last year, but with the help of the employees of Missoula Water … It’s a pretty impressive amount of work that was done after taking possession,” Dennis Bowman, the deputy public works director, told the City Council on Wednesday.
Missoula wrested control of the utility from the Carlyle Group through a contentious and expensive legal battle — more than $9 million at last count — in June 2017. Since then, the city has tried to make the transition as seamless as possible while investing in infrastructure and streamlining the billing processes, Bowman said.
The effort includes working on ways to send just one water and sewer bill, instead of two to customers; installing 13 new hydrants for fire protection and 160 new water taps; and replacing or installing 9,600 lineal feet of water main lines and 935 feet of sewer lines.
In addition, the city has rebuilt well pumps, inspected five tanks using divers, updated its website and partnered with numerous groups to support groundwater protection and education.
And it did all this without raising rates, Bowman said.
“We were supposed to increase by 6 percent in September, but the decision was made to hold the rates,” Bowman said. “That just shows you we can reinvest in the system and hold the rates.
“The previous owners were authorized to receive a 10 percent return on their investments, so they would go every two years for rate increases.”
The 11 new employees include an operations dispatcher, a site manager, a service employee, two distribution employees, two utility locators, a “supervisory control and data acquisition” specialist and a water quality specialist in the production department, and two customer service workers.
Bowman said goals for the upcoming fiscal year include improving or replacing hydrants, pumps and facilities, additional up-sizing of the main water lines, replacing the South Avenue well and the Lincoln Hills tanks, installing additional meters and improving the billing system. They’re also conducting a water rate survey.
Council member Jesse Ramos, who has been an outspoken critic of the legal bills involving the takeover, praised the accomplishments, saying he was “impressed with the leadership and work of the staff,” a sentiment echoed by other councilors.
“I never in my wildest dreams thought that one year in we would be sitting here with us being so successful and moving in a positive direction so quickly,” council member Jordan Hess added. “It’s a testament to your team at how creative they are with problem-solving and taking over the system. The depth of the expertise and the ability of the team to run the system so well is a tremendous benefit to our community.”