Westy utility rates likely to jump in 2019 and 2020

Cross Currents: A column by Bill Christopher
Posted 9/19/18

Last week, the Westminster City Council took a key step toward increasing water and sewer rates for both 2019 and 2020. Staff provided a thorough presentation on the needs and rationale to raise the …

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Westy utility rates likely to jump in 2019 and 2020

Posted

Last week, the Westminster City Council took a key step toward increasing water and sewer rates for both 2019 and 2020. Staff provided a thorough presentation on the needs and rationale to raise the rates at the Sept. 10 City Council meeting which included public input.

Covering the two year period, the presentation was based on water rates jumping by an average of 20 percent while sewer rates would go up on the average of 28 percent.

The size of these increases over the two years would be unprecedented. Fundamentally, it is showing the increasing costs to maintain, repair and replace an aging water treatment and water distribution system as well as an aging sanitary sewer treatment plant and collection system.

In retrospect, Westminster utility rates should have been increased quite regularly over the past 10-15 years which would have alleviated the need for the sizable proposed increases. Usually, smaller increments like four percent -seven percent are applied annually when needed to keep the impact of increased costs as low as possible to the utility customers. This responsibility fell on the previous city administration and mayor and city council.

Now, the current mayor, city council and city administration have inherited the problem and must deal with it. Their transparency is to be applauded.

A well thought out approach

In reviewing the materials provided to the public, I have to say that the staff applied a very thorough and well-thought out approach in deriving their recommendations. A nationally highly regarded consulting company assisted city staff in the comprehensive review and re-calibrating both the monthly utility rates as well as the one-time tap fees for new development. The recommendations were developed around six guiding policies.

Briefly, they are:

Adjusting the existing residential and commercial customer imbalance over eight years;

Adjusting the water use tiers to increase affordability and to charge very high water use customers for their share of impacts;

Simplifying commercial water use tiers and apply a surcharge for overuse;

Enhancing the fixed revenue component to provide more stable water revenues to be phased in over eight years;

Maintaining a single sewer rate; and

Implementing a “readiness to serve” sewer minimum charge.

Westminster’s current rates are in the middle

Staff gave three different water customer scenarios based on water consumption to show the added cost for both water and sewer generated by the proposed changes.

A low water user -- using up to 4,000 gallons per month -- would pay an additional $53 per year.

The middle water user - using up to 20,000 gallons per month -- would pay $178 more annually.

The high water consumer, who use more than 21,000 gallons per month, would be charged an additional $875 next year.

The sample water user scenarios only showed the 2019 rate increases and not the additional increases for 2020. Also, the increased costs included higher fixed fees for both water and sewer services.

Currently, Westminster residents enjoy utility rates which are about in the middle among 20 different municipal and utility special districts in the Denver metro area.

Broomfield is on the low end with an approximate $650 annual cost, Westminster is in the middle at $865 and Erie has the dubious distinction of being the highest surveyed at an average of $1,550 per year. The average annual cost among the 20 entities is $1,001.

Six of the 20 surveyed showed an annual average cost of at least $1,000. Proposed rate adjustments for the 19 other entities in the next two years were not available.

Proposed rate increased are warranted

The question came up at the September 10th public meeting about what would happen if there were not any water or sewer rate increases imposed in 2019 or 2020.

Staff responded clearly that it would lead to a major impact on the dependability and safety of both water and sewer services -- something the public tends to take for granted.

Plus, the city would not be able to issue utility bonds in the amount of $102 million next year to tackle the most critical utility projects.

In my opinion, it would be irresponsible on the City Council’s part to ignore the compelling arguments that staff put forth at the public meeting and is contained in the written agenda memorandum and attachments.

The City Council is scheduled to consider action on the staff recommendations at the September 24th city council meeting.

Whatever is approved will take two “readings” of the required ordinance to implement the rate increases and changes effective January 1, 2019. Second “reading” would take place on October 8th.

Happy Birthday to FRCC

Happy birthday to Front Range Community College.

As you may know, the college is celebrating 50 years of providing higher education opportunities. The college started in Denver in 1968 and was known as the Community College of Denver-North Campus.

Then a new facility was built in the 1970’s and first opened for classes in the fall of 1977 in Westminster on 112th Avenue.

Over the years, the student center, a green house and College Hill Library were added. The library is a joint venture with the City of Westminster which has served the students and the community quite well.

FRCC is a major asset to the region

Front Range is the largest community college in Colorado with three separate campuses —Westminster, Fort Collins and Brighton. The college offers72 degrees as well as 122 certificates in career and technical fields.

The Westminster campus has 7,800 students. The college is a major asset to not only the Westminster community, but the surrounding area as well. It has partnered with the City of Westminster in constructing and operating College Hill Library.

Also, Front Range was a partner with Westminster in the ill-fated effort to build and operate a cultural arts center on campus. (All the funding had been achieved by both parties up to when Governor Bill Owens line item vetoed the state’s funding share for the center. That was indeed a sad day.)

The college has a strong technical (vocational) set of courses and has partnered with school districts in the past.

Bill Christopher is a former Westminster city manager and RTD board member. His opinions are not necessarily those of Colorado Community Media.

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