Hill County business owner at odds with city of Havre over bulk water

Cody Miles
Posted at 8:49 AM, Jan 09, 2023
and last updated 2023-01-09 10:49:40-05

Cody Miles uses a lot of water. As the co-owner of High Horizon Gardens, a hydroponic business just outside Havre that grows lettuce, he needs hundreds of gallons of water at a time weekly, and sometimes even several times a day, from the city of Havre's fill station.

Getting the water, though, has become a point of contention.

One problem, he said, is the payment system.

Cody Miles
Cody Miles

"These cards, you hold up and you go to the city and pay them and it deducts your card. But you can only buy in $1, $5, $10, and $20 dollar increments,” Miles explained.

The reason that's a problem?

If you want an amount of water that doesn't cost a whole dollar amount you either have to pay for the closest whole dollar amount worth of water and then have money left over or let the remaining water you paid for and don't need run out.

Miles demonstrated this at the fill station. At the time, he needed a little less than 200 gallons to fill up his tank.

He paid a dollar and got the first hundred gallons.

Because he then needed less than 100 gallons to fill up the remainder of his tank but the minimum amount of water that can be purchased is 100 gallons he had to pay a second dollar for a second hundred gallons.

When his tank got full, he could either stop the water or let the remaining water he paid for but couldn't fit in his tank spill out.

He chose to let it spill out.

Because the machine does not dispense change, if he had stopped the water when his tank was full whatever amount of money was left from his second dollar that he didn't get water for would get left on the machine.

That money doesn't go back on his account. Instead it goes to the city.

"I don't know how a municipality can affectively put a sign up that says 'We're going to take your change,” Miles said. "Not everybody's tank is the same. I figured since we're going to be going into 2023, with our tax dollars that we spend and our money that we spend down there, it would be a system designed and upgraded to (be) overall user friendly not only for the consumer but for the city as well."

Havre's mayor, Doug Kaercher, and public works director, Dave Peterson, have an explanation.

Havre's mayor, Doug Kaecher, and public works director, Dave Peterson
Havre's mayor Doug Kaecher, and public works director Dave Peterson

They say when the payment system was upgraded because the company that maintained the old system wasn't going to maintain it anymore the city went with the system that's now in use because it's operated by the same company and that would get the fill station back in operation the quickest.

"We know we have some issues with it,” Kaercher said.

Kaercher and Peterson said the city is working with the company to try to figure out if allowing people to purchase water in amounts other than the current preset amounts is an option.

"If it is and it doesn't cost the city extra money to do that we'd probably look at that option. But if it's something, like, 'Hey, we've got to send this back and we've got to do some more work to it and that's going to be a cost' then the city will have to decide if that's something they want to do,” said Peterson.

MTN asked the mayor why people's change doesn't go back on their account.

"Why would it?” He said. "You’re purchasing more water than you're going to be able to use. So why not purchase 200 gallons and come back and get 200 gallons again rather than have to go for 250?"

As for water being wasted when it's allowed to overflow, Peterson said it's not really wasted because it's either being absorbed into the ground or going down the drain and ultimately back into the city's water supply.

Terry Turner is a rural water hauler who uses the fill station. Like Miles, he emphasizes the importance of having a station that is over all user friendly.

Terry Turner
Terry Turner

"I know a lot of farmers around the whole area rely on that for their spraying needs during the summertime,” said Turner.

Miles also takes issue with the rate, $1 per 100 gallons, the city charges for bulk water.

"Every penny counts in agriculture right now,” said Miles.

Kaercher said the rate is necessary to meet the city's bond covenants.

"Those covenants require us to have 125 percent of revenue to keep them. So when we get close to not meeting that, meeting that covenant, then we have no choice but to raise water rates,” Kaercher explained.

Miles' wife Aricka says she and her husband don't plan to leave but the thought has crossed their minds as they deal with the water.

Aricka Turner
Aricka Turner

"It's really frustrating,” she said.

If they did leave, it would be a big blow to the area.

"Growing up in town, there's no fresh produce, especially in the wintertime. You're not going to find it up in Montana. It's fact. So that's what we wanted to do, give back to the community at some point,” she emphasized. "Then, you see all the salmonella and people can't get lettuce but here it's ready, it's fresh, it's available. We also sell to Havre Public Schools, so the kids have been introduced to a fresh, locally grown product. The community's noticed a difference and they let us know that they truly do appreciate what we do."

"A lot of the future in farming is through hydroponics and it's very beneficial to a lot of things around Montana,” Miles said.