Wichita’s water and sewer rates will increase in 2015 to replace or repair aging pipes and equipment.
Included on that list is a 66-inch, 50-year-old sewer main that winds its way near the Arkansas River as it stretches almost three miles from one sewage treatment plant to another.
“Any leaks along the way would find their way in the river,” Alan King, public works and utilities director, said after the City Council voted 4-2 Tuesday to approve the rate increases.
The rate changes, which take effect Jan. 1, are largely based on water use. Residential customers using 3,750 gallons monthly will see a 4.4 percent increase. Those using four times as much will have a 5.9 percent increase.
Bills for commercial and industrial customers will jump more than 6 percent as the city continues to close a rate gap it discovered in 2011.
The city brings in an average of $135 million annually for water and sewer.
The rate changes are projected to increase revenue by $5 million for water and $2.6 million for sewer. The combined revenue increase is 5.6 percent, the same as it was for 2014.
Some of that money will flow toward that 66-inch sewer main.
Checking the condition of that line is one requirement set by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment after a leaky valve at the city’s main sewage treatment plant allowed contaminated water to flow into the river in May 2012.
That particular 66-inch main wasn’t the culprit in the leaky-valve issue. But the city agreed to check that main’s condition as part of a negotiated settlement. Stiff fines were the other option.
“We had to commit to do certain things,” King said. “KDHE was telling us, ‘Look at your system, look at where you are likely to have future failures, and make some improvements.’ ”
Work on that main would cost $45 million in a “worst-case-scenario,” King told the council. But that would mean substantial replacement or reconstruction of the line.
Less expensive measures could be relining the main or making spot repairs. Sensors are being sent into the line to assess what needs to be done, King said.
The city has agreed to have the work done by 2016.
The 66-inch main is projected as the biggest-ticket item on a list of sewer needs. The largest water project is providing the capability to treat water from the Equus Beds separately from Cheney Reservoir at a cost of $21 million over the next two years.
Water from both sources now must be treated together.
Wichita gets 40 percent of its water from the underground Equus Beds, north of the city, and the rest from Cheney. Having the capability to treat the Equus Beds’ water separately would be important in case something happened to the reservoir, King said.
Council members Jeff Longwell and Jeff Blubaugh opposed the rate increases Tuesday. Mayor Carl Brewer was absent.
Closing the gap
The rate changes are not the same across the board. That has been the case since 2012, when it was discovered that residential customers were paying about $2 more a month than it cost to serve them.
Since then, the city has followed a five-year rate plan that is gradually closing the gap between residential and other customers.
When that plan ends in 2016, the city will return to one rate increase for all customers, said Ben Nelson, strategic services manager for public works and utilities.
The 4.4 percent increase for residential customers using 3,750 gallons means a monthly bill will go up $1.65 to $39.04.
Meanwhile, the 6.3 percent increase for industrial customers using 10 million gallons means their bill will jump $3,031.
The city’s 12 wholesale water customers – including Maize, Derby and Valley Center – will see a 9.8 percent increase, according to city documents.
The city has noted that it has the 11th-lowest water rates among the nation’s 50 largest cities.
But Blubaugh wondered how much longer the city could claim that position if it keeps increasing rates at 5 percent or 6 percent each year.
Council member James Clendenin said elected officials are facing the problem now because past councils have deferred maintenance of infrastructure.
“We’re in this situation now,” he said, “because there’s been a lack of political will to make sure that our system stays solid.”
City Manager Robert Layton said, “We recognize that 5 to 6 percent increases aren’t sustainable. Hopefully, when we can get this bubble taken care of, we can get under 4 percent.”
Projections show the city going to 3 percent annual increases starting in 2019 and holding that pattern.
After the meeting, Blubaugh said, “I don’t think it’s a very adequate model to keep telling citizens, ‘Hey, we’re going to keep adding rate increases without any other revenue sources to keep up with the infrastructure.’ ”
He suggested that the city should look at how it allocates money from property taxes, citing specifically funds tapped for the proposed new downtown library.
“We should keep our government simple and put our money into infrastructure,” he said.
King, however, said he thinks reasonable rate increases can address the infrastructure needs.
“We don’t know when we close that gap,” he said after the meeting, “but we’re definitely on the right trajectory. We’re taking some painful steps in the right direction.”
The revenue generated by the rate increases won’t go toward a long-term water supply and expanding the city’s aquifer storage and recovery facility. Those costs would have been funded by the proposed 1-cent sales tax that was defeated by voters in November.
Rate increases to maintain the infrastructure were always part of the plan, regardless of the outcome of the sales tax vote, city officials have said.
Combined monthly water and sewer bills for 2015
Approved 2015 rates
10 million gallons
Source: City of Wichita