City council meetings are known for attracting swarms of gadflies, watchdogs and whistleblowers. Missoula meetings in particular are famous for copious colorful characters, but few have been as effective at bringing scandals to light as Hamilton City Council regular Robert Sutherland. After six months of noisemaking over Rocky Mountain Lab’s unbilled and unpaid municipal sewer fees, Hamilton’s city government has finally taken notice and slapped the lab with a whopping $372,439 back-charge. The federally funded biological research lab has said it will pay up, but whether it will ever have to is still uncertain.
“You can’t back-charge someone when it’s the city’s mistake,” says Hamilton City Council member Carol Schwan. “It wasn’t their fault they weren’t charged. They can only pay what they get billed for.”
While Schwan believes the mistake was the city’s fault, it is difficult to say exactly where blame should rest. A lack of billing dates back to at least 1996 and no one who currently works in the department responsible for sewer billing was working for the city back in 1996, nor were any of the current elected officials in office at the time.
“That’s the interesting thing about this,” says Schwan. “There are absolutely no records, no written records, of how the situation was created.”
Since Schwan and many of her fellow council members don’t consider the problem the lab’s fault, they want to overturn an ordinance that back-bills for unpaid services.
“I told Jerry Steele who is the council president and the chairman of the public works committee that there was an ordinance that covers under-billing,” says Sutherland. “All he said was that they’re not going there and he won’t say anything more.”
Sutherland says he’s been misrepresented as an opponent of the lab and its efforts to expand.
“I don’t have any reason to oppose the expansion,” he says. “But I don’t want expensive impacts on the city to be borne by the taxpayer.”
After further investigation by Schwan and Sutherland, both suspect that the lab was also never charged for an expanded service line connection put in sometime around 1996. To put in a service line connection of the size the lab received in the mid-’90s would cost more than $500,000 today. All in all, Sutherland estimates that Hamilton may have lost out on as much as a million dollars in revenue—this in a city with an annual budget of around $5 million.
It is still in question whether Schwan and Steele will be able to exempt the lab from the $372,439 bill. As for the half-million dollar service line, Schwan says there will be no effort to charge the lab for the connection because, again, “it’s not their mistake” and there is no record of when the connection went in or how much should have been charged for it. But now, at least, the lab will be getting a regular monthly bill, just like Schwan, Sutherland and the rest of Hamilton’s residents.