November 19, 2013

Wichita City Council agrees to 5.6 percent rise in water, sewer rates

Wichita water and sewer rates will rise an average of 5.6 percent again in 2014, the Wichita City Council decided unanimously on Tuesday.

Wichita water and sewer rates will rise an average of 5.6 percent again in 2014, the Wichita City Council decided unanimously on Tuesday.

Homeowners will see their bills increase from 3.5 to 5 percent – or $1.33 to $5.21 a month – depending on the amount of water used. Commercial customers will face a 6 percent increase, an average of $29.29 more per month.

The increases — set to go into effect Jan. 1 — are the latest in a series of single-digit annual rate increases planned to moderate the historically up-and-down water department balance sheet and to boost the amount the city can spend on infrastructure repair and replacement. The varied increases will help level off a disparity between residential and business rates.

The increases drew no opposition at the council meeting Tuesday, although some council members worried aloud about their impact on low-income Wichitans.

“For so many of our constituents … $1.33 is quite an increase for them, especially those on a fixed income,” council member Lavonta Williams said.

Audience member Lonny Wright, a plumber, called Wichita’s water a bargain.

“We have dramatically underfunded the water department. We’ve been hesitant to raise prices, and when we have we’ve needed a chunk. It’s been very volatile,” he said. “I appreciate this professional approach that (City) Manager (Robert) Layton took in his (10-year rate) analysis.

“We have some of the best water and the cheapest water prices. People in other cities pay hundreds of dollars a month on their water bills, more than for electric.”

Most of the revenue from the rate increases is devoted to infrastructure repair and replacement, said Alan King, the city’s director of public works. The proposal includes efficiency changes in the city’s public works department, estimated to generate an additional 1.5 percent reduction in costs or increase in revenue.

Wichita has fallen far behind in those repairs and replacements, King said.

In January, Mayor Carl Brewer painted an expensive picture of lagging maintenance, pegging the cost to catch up at $2.1 billion. As a result, the city plans to spend more — between $6 million and $8 million annually — on water and sewer line repair and replacement.

Most cities devote 5 percent of the value of their water assets to repair and replacement, but Wichita fell below 1 percent from 2008 to 2011, King said. Meanwhile, water main breaks and leaks per 100 miles of pipe are almost 25 percent higher than the national average – 34 in 2012 before dropping to 31 through most of this year, still well above the national average of 28.

Sewer system repair and replacement also dipped below 1 percent asset value in 2010 and 2011 before returning to 2 percent this year, King said. Meanwhile, sewer backups jumped 22 percent since 2011 to almost 170, well above the 130 national average.

Public works officials defended the rate increase, saying the city’s utility operation is 18 percent more efficient than the national average, as set by the American Water Works Association — $999 to treat a million gallons of water and sewage in Wichita, compared with the national average of $1,225.

Wichita’s water rates are among the most affordable in the 50 largest American cities, ranging from 20 percent to 50 percent lower, depending on the type of user, the officials said.

The water department has a projected $12 million shortfall this year because of a wet summer. But that will be offset from the city’s water reserves and contingency funds, public works officials said.

“We had reduced sales during the heavy rains that came in August right at irrigation time,” King said. “People significantly reduced their water use, but the way our rates are set up is conservative so we have a contingency. When we have a good year like last year, we take the extra revenue to get through a year like this year.”

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