By Naomi Klouda
The water-sewer billing system needs to be arranged more on principle than politics and a socialized system where everyone pays whether they use a gallon of water or not also doesn’t work.
Those were observations of the water sewer task force that wrapped up its work and handed off new recommendations to the Homer City Council Monday night.
The council will present an ordinance soon that spells out the new rates. One of the chief changes will be a flat $18 service fee for all units. An additional $5 fee will be applied to each unit that doesn’t have a separate water meter.
This does away with the $25 water and $20 sewer service fees that were applied to renters throughout the city in January 2012. The task force agreed it was unfair to target that single user group when the ailing system wasn’t paying its own way.
Homer Mayor Beth Wythe, who served since May 2012 on the task force, gave a presentation Monday afternoon to the council outlining a new rate model. It begins with what is needed in revenue in order to supply water and sewer services to residents.
That number is $1,890,265 per year. The rates then need to reflect the cost of doing business in as fair and equitable way as possible, she told the council.
Looking at how Sitka, Kenai and other towns do it didn’t help much, Wythe said.
“Our system doesn’t give an-apples-to apples comparison with any community,” she said. “The density is different… All the water is at the top of a hill, then to get it down the hill you have to have all these pressure reducing stations and then you need the lift stations for the solid waste to get it back to the treatment plant.”
Homer has state-of-the-art facilities, she noted, that make it expensive. The challenge of the task force was how to make charges reflect actual costs to run it.
Councilman Beau Burgess, also on the task force along with Ken Castner and Sharon Minsch, described it this way.
“As the model currently stands, the biggest overall change is we’re going from a fixed rate model based on type of user to a commodity based model, with a few exceptions,” he said.
“A gallon of water is a gallon of water. A gallon of sewage is a gallon of sewage, but every two years we get to the same point politically where the council is moving back and forth between (adjusting rates for) residential and commercial, and between high volume and low volume,” Burgess said. “This creates polarization that leads to our current deficit.”
The task force broke it down to simple math.
“This takes the total number of gallons you think you’re gong to sell and divide it by the total revenue requirement of the system,” Burgess said.
When the administration set the most recent rates, they singled out the tenants of apartments. But no changes were made on commercial units where multiple offices each contained their own sink and toilet. Those units will now each pay the $5 unit fee in addition to the $18 service charge.
Another problem is that the lift station on the Homer Spit, and other low elevation lift stations, use more energy to transport solid waste to the sanitation system.
The new system assigns costs to those who cause costs, Burgess said. “If you have to pump sewage from sea level up hill to the sewer plant, it costs more than those who flush and it goes down hill,” he said.
This impacts 200 people on the system who will see a .2 or .3 cent increase per gallon of sewage, if that recommendation is adopted by the council.
If the rates are set to reflect what it costs to operate, the council will be moving away from a political atmosphere for deciding water and sewer costs.
“Every two years we won’t have the little older lady on a fixed income,” or a business owner show up and say ‘charge the other guy not me,’ Burgess said.
The task force also found wasted water resources in the system. The hydrants are currently flushed in order to ensure non-stagnancy and other considerations to keep the water sanitary. Public Works is looking at a new system so that it doesn’t see that many lost volumes.
Kachemak City also will need a new contract negotiated since the one in use hasn’t been updated to reflect costs in several years, Wythe said.
The council’s end goal is to leave time for the residents of the city to review the new rates and have time to testify before adjustments are adopted in June. Once adopted, the new rates will take effect July 1.
In other council matters:
• Introduced: an ordinance to pay $45,000 from the Water Reserve Fund for the demolition of the redwood tank at the Water Treatment Plant. Built in 1974, at the same time as the old water treatment plant was built, the tank is no longer useful. It leaks and may harbor organic sediments that create safety concerns, according to a memo from Public Works Director Carey Meyer to City Manager Walt Wrede. Funding would come from the Water Reserve Fund with help from an EPA grant.
• Passed: A resolution to create a new east-west road between Waddell Way and Bonanza Street and Waddell to Hazel. Eventually the Homer Transportation Plan is to have a route to Main Street in order to ease congestion on Pioneer Avenue.
• Approved: Pulling $110,000 from the Sewer Reserve fund to pay for damages to the waste water system after a Jan. 12 storm surge that flooded the city sewage plant by three and four feet. The insurance deductible is $100,000, which means the city will be paying out-of-pocket for the damage. But adjustments are being made to the insurance policies held by the city to account for severe storm damage.
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