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Engen sees proposed utility hikes as "investment" in Missoula's future

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Posted at 6:38 PM, Dec 02, 2021

MISSOULA — Missoula Mayor John Engen says a proposal to make a significant hike in the city's utility rates is an "investment" in the future.

The mayor also notes it's an investment in a publicly-owned utility, not the private water utility that had controlled Missoula's water.

The Missoula City Council is considering approval of a sweeping plan to hike prices for water, wastewater and stormwater services, starting in 2022. It renews attention on the city's extensive legal effort to take over Mountain Water.

"Because this utility, this essential utility, is publicly owned. Every dollar that is collected goes back into operating and improving that system," Engen says.

When the city prevailed in the multi-year court fight to take over the water system, Missoula leaders warned a long-term management approach wouldn't be without costs, especially since the aging water system was in bad shape.

During the initial years of ownership, Engen says the city has been aggressive about making upgrades.

"So we've got operational financial pressure and we have capital financial pressure. And that's really about making sure that the system is working well today and long into the future. We're saving upwards of 1 million gallons a day that we're leaking because we're replacing ancient mains, and that's the work that will continue."

Engen says the city is also making sure developers "pay as they go" for all utilities, instead of the previous Mountain Water system, where "upfront" costs could be spread over decades.

"So development is paying as it goes, both through development fees and impact fees as they move forward."

The city's proposed rate schedule would ramp up what it charges for all three utilities over the next three years. Wastewater charges would see the most aggressive increase, with a 27% jump by 2024. That pushes the average residential utility bill to well past $70 a month by the end of the climb.

The city is also proposing an increase in commercial utility fees, where the average varies considerably depending on the type, and size of business. But the matrix of the increase matches the amounts of the proposed hike in residential fees.

"We are tempering pollution in the Clark Fork River when we do the land application that we do at our poplar farm. We're tempering that pollution. We're also creating a carbon sink, and when we're improving our stormwater system, it means that our aquifer is cleaner than the water we drink and the Clark Fork River is cleaner as well."

The city is also attempting to "build in" revenues to meet the more stringent environmental permits and costs for building new utility facilities, which is becoming more of an issue in Montana.

"We're always striking this balance," Engen explains. "For residential customers, this is something on the order of four bucks a month I think all in. Which is a thing. But at the same time as as we look at all the other services that we find valuable in our lives these are absolutely essential and these are our collective investment in each other to make a community work."

The Missoula City Council has a public hearing on the rate increases scheduled for Monday, Dec. 6. Additional information is available on the Engage Missoula website.