Itemizer-Observer

INDEPENDNCE — The average Independence resident will see an increase of $3.42 in their combined water and sewer bill come Feb. 1.

The Independence City Council approved the rate hike as part of an annual increase recommended in a 2017 study.

Gloria Butsch, city finance director, explained to the council at its Dec. 22 meeting the water base rate will increase $0.86 for average residential users and $0.08 per 100 cubic feet of use. And for residential sewer customers, an increase of $2.07.

Butsch said the city typically reviews its utility rates in December and makes adjustments on Jan. 1.

The council adopted annual increases of 4.15% increase for sewer and a 2.53% increase for water following an October 2017 rate study by consultant Steve Donovan of Donovan Enterprises. Butsch said the recommended annual rate adjustments were based on the Capital Improvement Plan, operational needs and debt service, in addition to a requirement from Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) as a condition in the loan agreement.

Butsch said this will be the first rate increase since 2019.

“There was no water rate increase for 2020, pending the completion of the Water Master Plan update,” she said. “However, due to COVID-19 and the resulting temporary refocusing of staff time, the Water Master Plan completion is still pending. In order to prevent the need of a larger increase in the future, staff recommends continuing with the increases as recommended in the rate study.”

Butsch explained that the water utility fund has also been greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The city did not charge late fees or perform service shutoffs of delinquent accounts between March and December. She said due to financial hardships for many Independence customers, utility billing for these services put the city about 6% below budget, or $30,000,

Councilor Shannon Corr asked what the impact would be if the council did not approve the rate hikes.

“We’d be running the risk of needing a much larger increase further down the line,” Butsch answered. “We have experienced this in past.”

She pointed to a 2010 rate study that recommended to wait year or so to raise rates. Butsch said the next rate increase was very significant because it was the first time they adjusted in many years.

“We do that, we run risk of pushing the ball down the road for years and the impact on community is much harder,” she said. “Plus, you consider COVID effects on everybody in the economy could be much tougher for everybody down road.”

City Manager Tom Pessemier explained the regular rate increases help pay for debt requirements from expensive sewer projects. 

“On the sewer side, we’ve done tremendous work. The recycled water use facility allows us to spray treated affluent on to harbor’s field in order to preserve sewage lagoon capacity,” Pessemier said. “It’s a very expensive project that meets a high need. Plus the River View pump station had a lot of issues, related to age.”

He also pointed to improvements made to the 9th and WIlliams streets pump stations.

“If we don’t have these regular increases, especially on the sanitary side, then that’s a big concern for the people issuing our debt,” Pessemier said.

He added water projects have not been as expensive, as the city is trying not to take out debt.

“We’re trying to pay as we go,” Pessemier said, pointing to projects at the North Well Field and working with Monmouth to improve the South Well Field.

Corr was concerned how the community was going to be notified abou the rate increases, especially for those, like herself, who has her water bill paid automatically and only receives a text message that the bill is paid.

“You have a really solid argument why we need to do this. My concern is how is this going to be communicated to the community?” Corr askeed. “People are going to assume it’s a MINET increase. Is it just an increase in the bill, or will there be some kind of narrative with that?”

Butsch promised to put out a notification on social media about the increase and why, in addition to a message on bills with a short summary.

Pessemier added city staff talked about making the increase effective Feb. 1 to give residents extra notification time before rates went up.

Corr said she’d also like to see something added to the city’s website to where residents could learn more.

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