About a half dozen folks told Whitefish City Council last week that raising city water and sewer rates would squeeze their already tight budgets too far.
Clyde Dicks said his bill is $200 per month already and he hears of a lot of people who pay more than that.
“I’m hearing frightful numbers and now it’s going to go up,” he said. “It can’t keep going up. I already have a 38 percent increase on my property taxes. I don’t have the type of job that I can just go ask for more.”
Nina Laird said the homes on her street have brown lawns because of the cost to irrigate.
“We’re our proud of our beautiful city, and you’ve asked us to water our boulevard trees,” she said. “We have a couple of sprinklers to water, but this is costing us more than we can afford.”
City Council said it understands the burden of rate increases, but its hands are tied because it’s trying to ensure that rates match the cost to provide service.
“I am very sensitive to the costs to live in the city,” Councilor Frank Sweeney said. “The challenge we are faced with is how to allocate funds for the systems we have.”
Sweeney pointed out that changes in regulations is requiring the city to construct a new wastewater treatment plant at an estimated cost of $17.49 million and the city is trying to adjust rates based upon recommendations of its rate study.
“There is no easy way out,” he said. “I can’t not do these improvements. I can’t not maintain our system. This is a way to pay for those costs.”
Councilor Jen Frandsen said the city has to prepare for future economic recessions by doing capital improvements and replacing old infrastructure now.
“We’re trying everything we can to keep costs down,” she said. “It would be irresponsible to cut rates now.”
City Council Sept. 5 unanimously approved an increase to its water and sewer rates.
Beginning Oct. 1, the standard residential water user will see an increase about 30 cents per month, from $40.78 to $41.08, and the standard residential wastewater rate will increase about $5 per month, from $39.57 to $44.66. Some users could see a higher increase depending on their water service and which sewer service class they are located in.
A 2015 comprehensive water and wastewater rate study recommended the city increase water and sewer utility rates to cover the cost of service, and provide for necessary capital improvement projects.
Public Works Director Craig Workman said the analysis showed that the city needed to increase rates for operation and maintenance costs, along with planning for a new wastewater treatment plant estimated to cost between $15 million and $17 million.
“Historically the city did rate increases based on inflation,” he said. “The city is expected to do an analysis of its rate every five years or when it’s looking at a major project.”
During public comments, Rick Kratz said he doesn’t understand why Whitefish water and sewer bills appear to be two to five times higher than other cities.
“Why is it so doggone expensive,” he said. “Columbia Falls and Kalispell have wells. Maybe we’ve done the wrong thing.”
Whitefish gets its drinking water from intakes creeks in Haskill Basin and from Whitefish Lake.
“It costs more money to treat surface water than well water,” Workman explained. “There is more stringent treatment requirements for treating surface water because it’s open to air and possible interaction.”
Residents of Rest Haven Drive were among those voicing concerns with the increases. The base rate for their sewer service are set to increase to about $64 per month.
Workman explained that residents in Rest haven pay more in general because the properties are not within the city limits and use a Septic Tank Effluent Pumping system, which involves a septic tank that is then pumped into the city system, that is more expensive to maintain.
“We’ve heard significant feedback from residents in Rest Haven,” he said. “We’ve had correspondence with residents asking to meet with them to come up with a solution.”
Monthly irrigation water costs for customers with landscape/irrigation meter usage of 10,000 gallons per month will also seen an increase about $2 per month, which increases their bill from $40.80 to $42.80.
The city is planning for a new wastewater treatment plant that is necessary for the city to meet new treatment standards for removal of ammonia, nitrogen and phosphorous as part of its discharge permit with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
The city last fall also approved a rate increase for water, sewer and irrigation rates in what is expected to be a multi-year rate increase. The rate study recommended increasing water rates by 3.6 percent over the next five years, while wastewater rates could increase by as much as 95 percent over the next 10 years.