City preparing ordinance for future Mountain Water operations

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Members of the city of Missoula’s legal team, along with those representing Mountain Water Co., leave Missoula County District Court after a recent hearing. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

By Martin Kidston/MISSOULA CURRENT

While the city of Missoula prepares for oral arguments before the Montana Supreme Court on the public necessity of owning Mountain Water Co., it’s also working behind the scenes to establish the utility’s future governance.

At a meeting with the Public Works Committee on Wednesday, Missoula’s chief administrative officer Dale Bickell said an ordinance could come before the City Council in February.

“We’re trying to be proactive in our approach to this,” Bickell said. “The timeline related to the transition is not necessarily in our control. We wanted to be able to get as much work done, proactively, as we can related to creation of the utility.”

Bickell said the city will initially consider establishing the utility by simply adopting Mountain Water’s existing rates, rules and procedures. The City Council would be established as the utility’s board of directors.

“Once the transition has occurred and we are managing the utility, the council would look at policy changes on a case-by-case basis related to changes,” Bickell said. “There will be a lot of policy considerations for the council over a long period of time as the transition happens. We want to have the utility set up so we can start managing it sooner rather than later.”

Bickell said it’s also possible that Mayor John Engen could consider an emergency ordinance – a decision that would be contingent upon how the proceedings play out in the weeks ahead.

Dale Bickell Web Size
Chief administrative officer Dale Bickell

Bickell said the city currently has an internal team working on drafting an ordinance for city governance of the utility. That process would conclude around April 6, though an emergency ordinance could occur as soon as Feb. 23, Bickell said.

“There’s a number of policy decisions this body (City Council) will need to deliberate on, such as investments going forward and closing the substantial percentage of service connections that aren’t metered,” said Ward 1 council member Bryan von Lossberg. “Getting to full metering is a policy decision and a capital investment decision we should deliberate on and establish a plan for.”

Ward 3 council member Gwen Jones expressed concerns over a feared Mountain Water employee walk-off once the city takes ownership. She asked if the city has provisions in place to deal with such an event, and if city leaders are working to keep Mountain Water employees on the job.

“The ordinance doesn’t contemplate that type of contracting,” Bickell said. “We’re in the process of bolstering our business plan on transition issues. What we’ve said and continue to say is that we want all those employees.”