Why can’t the City of Missoula keep a secret?

Photo via Engen for Missoula

Remember when Mayor John Engen sent an open letter to Missoula telling us all he would run for re-election and had won his battle with alcoholism? The election part was not a surprise. We had not known he was an alcoholic, though. Nor had we known that for the past 28 days, an interim mayor had been running the city while he was at an inpatient alcohol treatment program. When he disappeared, communications Director Ginny Merriam told the Missoulian that he was away for unspecified medical reasons. Asked when he would come back, she said “we don’t know. You never know. But in this case you do know because, I repeat, 28-day inpatient alcohol treatment program. Anyway, the point is that the mayor is back and alcohol no longer interferes with the functioning of his life, as it apparently did for an unspecified time.

I mention this hoary tale from 2016 because this year, on December 20, the City of Missoula informed city councillors that it had corrected the $3 million accounting error it discovered six weeks ago and hadn’t told us about until now. They thought they had $4.2 million in their rainy-day fund, but it turns out to be only $600,000. Coincidentally, they discovered it one day before the 2017 mayoral election. Anyway, the point is that this accounting error has been corrected, so nobody needs to worry about it now.

As my dad used to say, once is a mistake and twice is a pattern. He also used to say terrible, biological things about city governments everywhere, and I’m starting to think he was right. The City of Missoula obviously has a problem: it can’t keep a secret for more than six weeks. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent, in which I put forth the thought experiment known as Schrödinger’s Town, where everyone is happy because we have no idea what’s happening.

No one can beat John Engen

Mayor John Engen and a guy who loves him—photo by Engen For Mayor Facebook

One fun thing about Missoula politics is that there are no polls. For all we know, Mayor John Engen won’t win a fourth term in next month’s election. Anyone who wants to bet that he won’t should contact me via email. In 2013, the last time he ran for re-election, he faced three opponents and got about 65% of the vote. This time it’s just Lisa Triepke, who was the subject of two Missoulian stories last week about the two houses, motorhome and used car she bought while she was also getting food stamps. Later in the week, the state found that she had committed at least 23 campaign finance reporting violations.

The Missoulian endorsed her opponent. One thing they did not mention is that he used to work there. Mayor Engen has enjoyed friendly coverage from Missoula’s only daily newspaper. For example, when he secretly enrolled in a 28-day inpatient treatment program for alcoholism last year, the Missoulian reported that he would be gone indefinitely for undisclosed medical reasons and left the story at that. He came back clean a month later and told us all what happened, simultaneously announcing that he would run for a fourth term.

All this is to say that the mayor’s position is comfortable. Sometimes it feels too comfortable, like when his estimate of how much we would pay in legal fees to buy the water company was off by a factor of twenty. The Mountain Water saga was a testament to the mayor’s power—both its efficacy and its potential to run unchecked. If buying the water works had proven to be a boondoggle, a goose chase, a white-whale scenario, who in Missoula’s existing political landscape would have stopped it?

It’s worth thinking about as we all get ready to vote him into office again. I know I’m planning to vote Engen, because Lisa Triepke does not seem like she would do a better job. Still, might the man himself do a better job if he were vying for our affection with someone else? That’s the subject of this week’s column in the Missoula Independent which, I admit, is strictly for the hardcore. But I recommend you follow Missoula politics from afar. They’re worth it for entertainment value alone.

Two years and $14 million later, Missoula wins right to buy Mountain Water

Missoula mayor John Engen atop Water Works Hill

Missoula mayor John Engen atop Water Works Hill

On Tuesday afternoon, the Montana Supreme Court upheld a district court decision forcing the sale of Mountain Water to the city of Missoula by eminent domain. It was the culmination of a fight that has lasted almost two years, beginning when the city offered multinational private equity fund The Carlyle Group $50 million for our water system in 2014. After Carlyle refused and Missoula started preparing its eminent-domain suit, the city estimated the total legal cost of condemnation at $400,000. As of this writing, we’ve spent $6 million, and we’ll likely be held liable for Carlyle’s $8 million in legal costs, too. But the important thing is we bought the water company—not for the $50 million we considered a fair price in 2014, but for $88.6 million. But we won, and Mountain Water is a good deal at any price, as the mayor expressed in this tweet yesterday:

That’s kind of infuriating. At a City Club forum in January of last year, before the value of Mountain Water had been established by a district court, I asked city council members at what threshold the purchase price of the water company would no longer save ratepayers money over the life of a 20-year bond. They didn’t know. The city had not run the numbers to determine at what point Mountain Water stopped being a good deal. Fifty million was a good price, apparently, and $50 billion would be too much. But within that range, no one could say exactly where a smart investment would turn dumb. Then-Councilman Adam Hertz said no such detailed financial analysis was available.

Engen insists this deal will save ratepayers money, and he admonishes us to study before we tweet. But he did not study before he embarked on the largest purchase in Missoula’s history. His insistence that those who criticize him base their arguments on careful examination of the numbers ignores the fact that he committed to this plan without studying those numbers himself. It’s a bad look, and so is the lawsuit alleging that the $8 million Carlyle spent on legal defenses was excessive. The city is going over Carlyle’s expenses with a fine-toothed comb, looking out for taxpayer dollars in the matter of dinner at Hooters, for example, when it overshot its own estimated legal bill by 1400 percent. You can read all about it in this week’s column for the Missoula Independent.

I’m glad we won City of Missoula v. Mountain Water. It will be good for this town to own its water system. But I don’t know whether it will be good for ratepayers to have bought it for $89 million plus $14 million instead of $50 million. Apparently, neither does anyone in city government. That’s the problem. The city didn’t perform its due diligence on this deal, and now we have committed to a massive investment that may or may not save us money over the next two decades. It doesn’t matter. We just did it.