On Tuesday, Dec. 13, the Montana Public Service Commission approved the sale of Missoula's water utility to the world's largest equity firm, the Carlyle Group. "I believe that this...is the best that we can do and protects Mountain Water ratepayers," said Missoula Public Service Commissioner Gail Gutsche.
Since last December, when the pending sale was announced, Missoulians have voiced concern about how it will affect the rates that city residents pay for water and whether Missoula's now plentiful resource could be diverted outside of the community to benefit Carlyle.
For decades, the city of Missoula has coveted its privately owned water supply. It tried unsuccessfully to acquire it in the 1980s through its power of eminent domain. In September, the city and local water watchdog group the Clark Fork Coalition agreed to support the sale of Mountain Water to Carlyle. The agreement came after the city and the Clark Fork Coalition secured an agreement with the equity firm that, among other things, guarantees Missoula will get first dibs to buy the utility if it's sold apart from its parent company, the California-based Park Water.
Missoula mayor John Engen believes the PSC's decision is in locals' best interests. "The commission's action today reflects the spirit of the agreement among the city, the Clark Fork Coalition and Carlyle," Engen said Tuesday, "and brings us a step closer to municipal ownership of the water utility."
During Tuesday's PSC meeting, Commissioner John Vincent said Missoula's support—City Council voted 11-1 in favor of the deal in September—was a primary reason for his backing it. "This is a local government issue as far as I'm concerned," Vincent said.
Republican commissioners Bill Gallagher and Brad Molnar voted against approving the sale. They expressed doubt that the agreement between Missoula and Carlyle would hold water. "It's like a little pretend shield when kids are fighting," Molnar said.
PSC chair Travis Kavulla, a Republican, joined Democrats Vincent and Gutsche in supporting the sale. Carlyle says it expects the sale will be completed by the end of the year.