Big budget increases for districts in Missoula

I just took another look at the trend in the city’s park and road districts.

In an earlier story, I included the information that the road district had increased 121 percent in one year, according to city finance documents.

I think it’s because of the sidewalk program the Missoula City Council adopted.

The piece I missed in the first look was that the road district went up 325 percent from FY12 to FY14. See page D-13.

There’s a hearing tonight on a new district, a public safety and justice district, for police and fire. We’ll see who turns up.

Police are stuffed in their offices, overstuffed. Photographer Michael Gallacher took the photo above.

In 2012, I wrote this story about the general fund ballooning nearly 30 percent since Mayor John Engen took office. It was based on this comparison, which I hope you’ll be able to open if you want, but if you can’t, I can email it to you: Budget comparison.

I haven’t updated it, but I should do so sometime this spring. At the time, finance department head Brentt Ramharter confirmed the information and increase.

Engen wrote this response in October to our election question about the budget increases:

General fund expenditures during my tenure as mayor, from FY2007 to FY2012 grew by about 20 percent and largely reflect negotiated salary increases for union employees and other employees, the folks who make City operations work every day. Because I’m the primary author of those budgets, I stand by them. They reflect a balance between community interests and the desire for city services and meeting our statutory obligation to deliver a balanced budget. I’ve also delivered significant budget cuts during the depths of the recession, which included a reduction in the number of employees.

— Keila Szpaller


Glacier melts into small lake; buttercup blooms

You should “like” Glacier National Park’s page on Facebook if you haven’t already. I am using their photo here of Grinnell Glacier.

This is one of the places in the park where the effects of climate change are clear and dramatic. We used to guide interpretive hikes onto the glacier; today that area has melted back and there is now a small lake.

Here’s a story from the New York Times about  the “dire” consequences of climate change and “human-caused” effects.

Good news from the Missoula City Council meeting last night: Council president Marilyn Marler found a buttercup blooming in her yard. She said it’s a sure sign spring is truly on its way.

Also, Councilors Bryan Von Lossberg and Jason Wiener are bringing up a resolution linked here asking the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to change its cleanup proposal for the White Pine Sash site. It’s on the agenda for 10:30 a.m. Wednesday, March 19, Council Chambers, 140 W. Pine St. Tomorrow!

— Keila Szpaller


“Sounding Board,” Wohl v. City of Missoula, chocolate

Here’s my story about a couple who sued the city of Missoula in 2005 for taking their property. They and other plaintiffs won last year in the Montana Supreme Court, and they are still waiting to be paid for their land.

Photo editor Kurt Wilson took this picture and the others posted online.

Also, the Zootown Arts Community Center has a cool art exhibit up called “Sounding Board” by artist Gwendolyn Landquist.

The Sharpie-on-birch collection opened Friday, and at least some of the pieces had already sold. If the last name sounds familiar, yes, County Commissioner Michele Landquist is the proud mama of the artist.

Hungry? Eat like a Food & Wine editor and have some chocolates from Missoula’s own Posh Chocolat. Just saw the post on FB.

All for now.

— Keila Szpaller



Happy Friday, especially when you’re Benicio Del Toro in Montana

Too much email. Too many tweets. Too much etc.

Let’s put two interesting items here.

First, if you haven’t read the beautiful things Benicio Del Toro has to say about Montana, click here.

We drove in a Winnebago. I saw the beautiful sky, the beautiful horizons. I stayed at the Super 8 in Cut Bank, and one of the impressions, the first impressions, was walking into the bedroom of the motel, and seeing the beautiful skyline, and the train tracks, and a bridge. It was like something out of a John Ford movie, from another era.

I looked out the window, out of the Super 8, and I took some pictures. The sky. The high-rolling train. It was like a painting. If John Steinbeck was a painter, he would paint that. Something about that, it hits the soul and plugs it up, and makes it speak in stereo. God, or call it whatever you call it, was there.

Also, the Clark Fork Coalition holds a talk from noon to 1 p.m. Monday, March 24, on an interesting topic. From their announcement:

On Monday, March 24 the Clark Fork Coalition will host a free brown bag forum on the threats posed to the Clark Fork River and its tributaries by Montana’s exempt well loophole. The event runs from 12:00 to 1:00 p.m. and will be held at the Coalition’s office, 140 South 4th St. West.

CFC Legal Director, Barbara Chillcott, will provide a background on how developers are using a loophole in Montana water law to install unlimited numbers of drinking water wells in residential subdivisions, essentially “cutting in line” ahead of other water users. The loophole allows developers to avoid the permitting process, disregard the cumulative impact of clustered wells on groundwater supplies, and ignore impacts on nearby landowner’s water supplies. Over the last two decades this loophole has allowed for the installation of tens of thousands of wells in the Clark Fork Basin– coinciding with a period of record-low stream flows in western Montana.


All for now. Happy Friday.

— Keila Szpaller

One million buckaroos, Carlyle, Glacier National Park

One million PLUS buckaroonies.

If this is a Jeopardy answer, the question is this:

“What does The Carlyle Group estimate the costs will be of defending itself in court should the city of Missoula file an eminent domain case in court?”

Kinda wordy. Sorry. And yes, Glacier National Park somehow plays into this. Photo editor Kurt Wilson took that picture.

Anyway, in the story, managing director Robert Dove offered written responses to questions through Carlyle spokesman Christopher Ullman.

I didn’t include everything in the story, of course, but I wanted to share more of the responses here.

In addition to asking about Carlyle’s ownership of Mountain Water Co. and the possibility the city will seek condemnation, I was curious to know if Carlyle’s people had been introduced to Missoula and Montana icons.

In particular, I wondered if Dove and his people, if he brings them, had visited Glacier National Park and Charlie B’s. The answer was no, but they’d done other cool things.

The list: Rafting the Alberton Gorge with Montana River Guides, skiing at Lost Trail, back country skiing at Lolo Pass, and hiking and running in the mountains.

That’s not a bad list, but I still vote for Glacier. Wilson’s caption says that of the 11 million nonresidents who visited Montana last year, 21 percent came specifically to visit Glacier National Park.

To get a little far afield from the primary topic, for every dollar the federal government spends in a national park, $10 goes back to local economies. (Do you think Park Cafe will still have the same menu? And further afield, but I’d like to know, and less about the pies than the huevos rancheros, to be honest.)

Back on point, according to Carlyle, the Park Water board has met in Missoula three times the last 12 months.

“We regularly spend several nights in Missoula and have eaten at a variety of local restaurants,” Dove said.

I also was curious about why the firm had chosen to invest $4 million a year into Mountain’s pipes. It’s a lot more than has been invested in recent years under Park’s ownership, some 40 percent more, according to Carlyle. However, at that rate, it’s still going to take a while to get the whole system shipshape.

Said Dove: “We expect this level of capital investment to continue. We work hard to balance capital investment decisions with the impact on water rates.”

As you may remember, the water company first spends money on infrastructure, and then it approaches the PSC and requests a rate increase to cover the amount. So the cost of the improvements eventually will find its way into our water bills, and we customers will pay, regardless of the owner.

Currently, we might be paying too much, given a recent decision by the Montana Public Service Commission to mostly approve a rate increase request made by Mountain Water. From the story yesterday:

Only one commissioner, Travis Kavulla, dissented. Under family ownership in the past, Park Water saw interest rates of 9.22 percent and 10.12 percent, he said; under Carlyle, it has issued debt at a cost of 4.53 percent.


“This, of course, was the very benefit that was promised to consumers by the Carlyle acquisition,” Kavulla wrote in his dissent.


Ratepayers, though, are not reaping the rewards … Rather … the PSC’s order set water rates as though a higher amount of money is required to service debt than is actually the case.


“Now, the time has come to realize the benefit, and the commission isn’t passing that onto you,” said Monica Tranel, lawyer for the Montana Consumer Counsel. “The money is staying in the company coffers.”

This post is getting long, but in case you’re not on Twitter, I’m sharing a couple other things with you. One, I was a little on edge the other day playing the waiting game, and I amused myself with a couple FAKE headlines about this whole ordeal:

KeilaSzpallerFeb 27, 11:05am via HootSuite

1/2 FAKE headline: After buying the water company in Missoula, global investment firm The Carlyle Group makes bid to purchase entire city


KeilaSzpallerFeb 27, 11:06am via HootSuite

2/2 FAKE subhed: Rest of Montana backs sale of commie Missoula; adopts first-ever sales tax to contribute to effort

Now, back to the truth: As of Friday, the city of Missoula hadn’t taken action against The Carlyle Group in court.

— Keila Szpaller