Water and sewer fees poised to increase 31 percent

water spigot

(Photo by Fedi/Pixabay)

The municipal fees we pay for clean tap water and sanitary sewage disposal are poised to sharply increase.

In a 5-4 vote Monday, a Juneau Assembly committee backed a plan to hike up sewer and water fees about 31 percent over the next three years. If the full Assembly approves the committee’s plan, then monthly fees for typical residents would go from about $90 now to $118 in fiscal year 2017.

“At one point in time, the mayor … made the statement that we have — that the Assembly has funded everything that the utilities had asked for,” said Public Works Director Kirk Duncan (Disclosure: Duncan is also a member of the KTOO board of directors). “He was correct. And what I should have said is, we didn’t ask for enough. We are now asking for what we think we need.”

The proposed fee hikes would partially commit the city to a 10-year Public Works plan. The department wants to turn around the two utilities’ deficits and bank a lot of cash. Through 2024, Public Works anticipates spending roughly $90 million on 175 water and sewer projects. They range from $20,000 pavement and pipe improvements all over the city, to $16 million to build a new facility that would address Juneau’s partially processed sewage problem.

The committee vote was split for a several reasons. One major division was whether the Assembly should look short or commit to the long-term plan.

Mayor Merrill Sanford said he was wary of further burdening the community based off of engineers and planners’ guesses about the future.

 “If you look at wastewater capital improvement projects when you start getting out there in 2018, 19, 20, and on up, you’re looking at guesstimates. And estimates that are based on a yearly thing,” Sanford said. “But when you start going out more than 3 years, you’re — we’re guessing. We’re all guessing. Might be a good guess, but it’s a guess.”

How’d they vote?
The Juneau Assembly’s Committee of the Whole forwarded a proposal to raise water and sewer fees by 9.5 percent in fiscal years 2015, 2016 and 2017. The Public Works Department wants to double the fees by 2024 to pay for roughly $90 million in water and sewer projects.
Loren Jones, Jerry Nankervis, Carlton Smith and Kate Troll voted yes.
Jesse Kiehl, Randy Wanamaker, Mary Becker and Merrill Sanford voted no.
The Assembly’s next meeting is May 19.

Assemblyman Loren Jones took the opposite tack.

“I could see getting into some pattern, that, instead of doing some steady funding and some forward thinking and putting the money in the bank, and trying to decide while it’s there, we get into this bounce up and down based on capital projects and I — I don’t think you like to plan that way, and I certainly would like not to plan that way,” Jones said.

Jones made the motion to commit to the first three years of fee hikes in the 10-year plan.

Assemblyman Jesse Kiehl sided with Jones, “Because it’s always very easy for a future Assembly to come in and say, ‘You know, we’re doing great. The grants are really flowing in, or the infrastructure is really lasting well, let’s reduce this.’ But it’s very painful to come in and say, ‘Golly, we’re short again. And I know we told you all we were going to start funding our depreciation, but we only kind of half-way did it, cause we got this one-time thing.’”

But Kiehl ended up voting no for two reasons. He wanted a longer commitment to give the community more predictability, and he wanted to offset the first few years’ fee hikes with an incoming grant from the state capital budget.

Kiehl said he may offer amendments when the full Assembly takes up the water and sewer fees.

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