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Wichita mayor names panel to study city's water woes

Mayor Carl Brewer named an 18-member panel of public finance, business and utility experts Monday to review the city's financially strapped water utility department and its massive aquifer recharge project.

At their first meeting, members had a plethora of questions.

Among them:

How long would it be before the salt plume moving toward the city's underground water supply becomes a serious problem if the aquifer recharge project is stopped?

Are nearby cities that buy water from Wichita paying for aspects of Wichita's water system that they aren't really responsible for?

Does Wichita still have the relatively low water rates that it was once known for?

The board has a long way to go to answer those and other questions.

But it will likely get a substantial boost when HDR, a consultant hired to analyze the city water utility's financial woes and long-term projects, files its report sometime in the next week or so.

The committee will meet once a month for the next year. It will make recommendations to the city manager and City Council.

"The whole purpose of this committee is to make sure that we have water for the next 50 years and beyond," Brewer said.

The committee was formed in response to revelations that water consumption had declined substantially and couldn't generate enough money to pay off debts related to the water projects.

That, paired with flawed debt payment schedules, could lead to a bond rating downgrade, which would leave the city unable to finance major projects.

To prevent that, City Manager Robert Layton plans to ask City Council members for a 15 percent water rate hike, which would likely be followed with steep hikes in years ahead.

But that has many cringing.

Steve Lackey, who retired from his post as public works director in 2004, said the timing of the hike alongside other economic problems makes the proposed hikes a "monumental issue."

"It's going to impact our ability to be competitive," he said.

The concern was echoed by others.

Ronald C. Brunton, a senior vice president for special assignments at Spirit AeroSystems, said his company already pays about $3 million in water and sewer bills per year.

"Our No. 1 concern is, are we going to have water for the next 40 years," he said. "And I would say we'd be willing to spend that if it ensures we have the resources."

Here are the members of Wichita's Water Utilities Advisory Committee:

* David Banks, energy manager of Wichita Public Schools

* Tim Boese, manager of the Equus Beds Groundwater Management District

* Ronald C. Brunton, senior vice president of special assignments for Spirit AeroSystems

* Daryl Crotts, owner/broker of Crotts Commercial Real Estate

* Joyce D. Dixson, vice president of residential lending with Intrust Bank

* John Goetz, district water engineer with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment

* Willis Heck, mayor of Newton

* Art W. Hubber III, vice president of facilities at Via Christi Medical Center

* Steve Lackey, senior design engineer and former director of public works

* Nancy McCarthy Snyder, associate professor of public administration at Wichita State University

* Carolyn McGinn, state senator and chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee

* M.S. Mitchell, retired superintendent of public works maintenance division

* Joe L. Norton, shareholder and director of Gilmore & Bell, a public finance law firm

* Kenney Nguyen, medical technologist at Via Christi Hospital

* Kathy Sexton, city manager of Derby

* George Sherman, vice president for special projects at Key Construction Inc.

* David M. Traster, special counsel for Foulston Siefkin LLP, which specializes in environmental law and water rights

* Tom Winters, former Sedgwick County commissioner.

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