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Court Hears Opening Arguments In Mountain Water Eminent Domain Case

Mountain Water Company, Missoula, MT.
Cheri Trusler

Attorneys presented their opening arguments today in the city of Missoula’s lawsuit to force the sale of its water utility from current owners, Mountain Water Company and the Carlyle Group. The city filed the suit nearly a year ago, claiming it's in the best interest of Missoulians for the city to operate it instead of a private company.

Mountain Water Company lead attorney Joe Conner responded to the city’s claim with one of his own:  This is our property, and you can’t prove we don’t deserve to keep it.

"Is it really more necessary for the city to own this system than the water company that’s owned it for 130 years? The city has that burden your honor. It’s not our burden," Connors emphasized.

But the city is trying to take ownership, through a legal process called eminent domain, by claiming that water is too important to the public good to leave in the hands of a company that simply wants to sell the utility for a profit.

128 other Montana cities own their own water utility. Missoula is the only major city in Montana that doesn’t own its own water.

Harry Schneider, lead attorney for the city, says the case isn’t about the right to own property, but rather, a city’s right to protect a crucial resource from out-of-state investors who just want to sell it to the highest bidder, “which in turn will influence the rates that’ll be charged to the people of Missoula who have no other choice but to purchase their water, Montana water."

Schneider says it would be more beneficial and convenient for Missoulians if the city owned its water, and it’s willing to pay a fair price to get it.

The city’s first witness, Missoula mayor John Engen, testified that Carlyle officials indicated there was a strong interest in selling Mountain Water to the city back in 2010, but never made any written agreements to do so.

The city has spent nearly $2 million since filing its lawsuit in April of 2014. The trial is expected to continue through April 2.

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