From The Valley Courier (Ruth Heide):
Utility rates will increase in Alamosa next year, and now residents have a better idea by how much.
The Alamosa city council Wednesday night approved on first reading and scheduled for a December 7 public hearing an ordinance increasing rates for water, sewer and solid waste (trash) disposal in 2017.
City water customers using about 8,000 gallons a month will see a 48-cent increase in their water bills, or just under 3 percent. Based on a conservation-oriented rate structure, customers using 50,000 gallons of water a month will see a larger increase, about $23 more a month, or about 25 percent. Customers using 100,000 gallons a month will see an even bigger increase, of more than $110 a month, based on the city’s conservationoriented rate structure.
Sewer rates will be increased by 8 percent across the board. The average customer using about 5,000 gallons a month will see an increase of $1.42 a month…
“We would never increase rates just to increase rates,” she said.
She said the staff has tried to manage the city systems as efficiently as possible to keep costs down, and staff wants the public to know the reasons for the increases. She explained that while the general fund covers many areas of city service, the enterprise fund covers the utilities, which should pay for themselves through rates and other charges. The enterprise fund revenues must not only cover operating and maintenance costs but also upgrades and improvements to the system, many of which are required by regulations and standards. The city cannot risk becoming noncompliant or its systems failing, Brooks explained. If the city is out of compliance with standards and regulations it could be fined or in an extreme case its systems be taken over by the state.
Sanitation and sewer rates have not increased since 2012 and water rates minimally since 2013, Brooks said.
The past increases have barely kept up with the normal cost of business but not covered capital improvement needs, she said.
“We have significant capital needs, especially with wastewater .”
She said funding sources like the Department of Local Affairs do not want to provide funds to communities where ratepayers are not paying their fair share.
The city contracted with Willdan Financial Services to perform a rate study, and the rate increases are based on what the consultant found and recommended.
Water conservation is key
Water revenues needed to increase by 6 percent, but the city is not proposing to increase rates 6 percent across the board, Brooks explained.
Part of what is driving these costs is the new groundwater rules taking effect in the San Luis Valley. To comply with the rules, the city is working on an augmentation plan, an effort costing upwards of $3 million.
If the city wants to continue providing municipal water, it must comply with these rules, Brooks explained.
The water rate structure takes conservation into account , Brooks added.
“We heard very clearly from council we needed to do more in conservation,” she said.
The city created a water smart team that has been looking at several measures including reducing irrigation needs on city-owned properties while still maintaining those properties for uses such as soccer fields.
“This team looked at every park and right of way the city owns and ways to reduce water usage,” Brooks said.
The team is also: looking at ways to educate the public on how to reduce water usage; creating programs to help residents on fixed incomes; and looking at ways to encourage landscaping changes to use less water and be more deer resistant.
In 2007 the city created a conservation-oriented staggered rate system that charges a higher rate to those who use larger amounts of water. The proposed 2017 rate structure adds another category for industrial users such as the school district and Adams State, which irrigate large areas and might be able to reduce that usage.
Brooks said another reason for larger water users, whether residential or commercial, to pay more is because it costs the city in infrastructure to accommodate that large of a volume.
“We have to build a system for the peak instead of normal residential usage,” she said. “There is additional cost to the city to have a system to meet that peak demand.”
Alamosa Public Works Director Pat Steenburg said Alamosa averages 1.2 million gallons a day during the winter but 5.1-5 .2 million gallons a day during the peak summer demand season.
“That’s all irrigation,” he said.
Another reason to be conservation oriented, Brooks explained, is because Valley water users can no longer continue pumping down the system.
“We don’t live in an environment that is water rich,” she said, “and we have been living like that. If you want to live that way, make a choice in landscaping that does not match the environment we have, there’s a cost for that.”
Councilor Liz Thomas Hensley said compared to San Francisco, where she was from, “we haven’t even touched what is conservation where I grew up.”
People were fined if they used too much water, could only water on certain days and used gray water for their yards.
She said with the water issues here, conservation should be taken seriously and those who choose to water more should have to pay more.
Councilman Jan Vigil said he grew up in El Paso, Texas, which is a desert, like the San Luis Valley, and he believes strongly in conservation.
Sewer system has significant needs
Sewer rates will be increased 8 percent across the board. Brooks said the capital needs in wastewater are significant . Some parts of the treatment system have become obsolete, and the city cannot even find parts and can only find one person anywhere who is qualified to work on the system.
One example is the UV (ultraviolet) system, which the city is cannibalizing parts from one unit to try to keep another working, and there is no backup if the one UV unit fails.
One motherboard is being jumped with a nail.
“When that board fails and it’s going to we can’t even replace it,” Brooks said. “This is an emergency.”
Another costly item, required by the new discharge permit, entails moving the discharge point, which will cost about $500,000. Fixing the HVAC system will cost another $100,000, repairing the aeration system will take another $500,00, and the list goes on, Brooks explained.
The city has deferred many of these repairs and replacements but cannot continue to do so, Brooks explained.
“This is something where we have significant capital needs that is driving the need for a rate increase,” she said.
Rates still comparatively low
Brooks said the city has performed an exceptional job to try to keep costs low. She shared comparisons with other municipalities, not in an effort to “keep up with the Joneses” but to show that even with the extensive system Alamosa has to operate, it has kept rates low, especially compared to other cities.
For example, with the increases the average Alamosa municipal customer will be paying about $42 a month for water and sewer while the average customer in Gunnison pays about $47 a month, East Alamosa $62 a month, Salida about $65 a month, Monte Vista about $73 a month, La Junta about $81 a month, Montrose about $87 a month, Pagosa about $98 a month and Durango about $131 a month.
Councilor Charles Griego said he did not care what other communities were doing but wanted to make sure Alamosa was taking care of its people, and he appreciated the fact the staff only recommended increases to cover the services and capital improvements needed.
Alamosa Mayor Josef Lucero also commended the staff and consultant for dealing with this complex and difficult issue.
“There are so many of us that go to the tap, turn that water on and don’t realize what really goes into every drop that comes out of that tap,” Lucero said. “It’s important for us to realize what we are paying for is basically life, because water is life. That’s our lifeblood here. We need to take care of it.”