A debate that kicked off nine months ago about Westminster's water rates for 2022 ended unceremoniously Aug. 10 when the City Council could not reach a consensus about new rates. Three council …
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A debate that kicked off nine months ago about Westminster's water rates for 2022 ended unceremoniously Tuesday night when the city council could not reach a consensus about new rates.
Three council members supported increasing rates next year, three did not. Due to a lack of majority support for one direction or another, the city will not increase rates next year, which poses a serious challenge to the city's current plan to construct a new water treatment plant by 2025.
The council began meeting for special water study sessions last October in advance of the 2022 rate-setting process. In March, city staff presented recommendations to increase water rates by 3.9 percent and sewer rates by 5.5 percent. The council voted 5-1 to reject those recommendations in June.
The council met for a study session on Tuesday to figure out a path forward. City staff still recommended raising rates because the city has forecasted the need to generate a certain amount of revenue to finance Water2025, or replacing the Semper Water Treatment Facility. Yet, the council ultimately didn't agree on a solution.
“I am very disappointed, and I think our community deserved better,” said Mayor Anita Seitz at Tuesday's study session.
“No amount of data is enough to get anyone out of their entrenched positions. It's frustrating and I don't know if it's stewardship,” the mayor added, referring to the three councilors who opposed rate increases.
Seitz was joined by Councilors Kathryn Skulley and Jon Voelz in support of raising rates, while Mayor Pro Tem David DeMott and Councilors Lindsey Smith and Rich Seymour were against increases. After voting against rate increases in June, Skulley and Voelz eventually changed their positions.
Water rates have long been a point in the division in the community and on the council ever since the Westminster Water Warriors, a community group, launched a recall campaign last fall against Seitz, Skulley, Voelz and former Mayor Herb Atchison over the council members' position on water rates.
Atchison, who had been considered a tie-breaking vote on issues like water, resigned in May. In Atchison's absence and Seitz' ascension to the mayor's chair, the council couldn't agree on a candidate to appoint to the seventh council seat, leaving the dais vulnerable to additional 3-3 splits.
The Water Warriors secured a recall election against Voelz in July, but the councilman retained his seat with 62% of the total votes.
Despite the well-known 3-3 split among the council on water, city staff dug in their heels at Tuesday's study session, emphasized the need to finance the construction of Water2025, and hoped that DeMott, Smith and Seymour would change their minds.
Max Kirschbaum, public works and utilities director, said “It's unequivocal. This plant (Water2025) needs to be built, period. Sooner rather than later. In my most professional opinion, there is no way around it.”
Quickly responding, without mincing words, DeMott said, “I appreciate your point of view. However, I don't share it.”
DeMott reiterated a point he has previously made about not trusting the city's plan for utilities capital improvements. Smith echoed the mayor pro tem, saying, “The original problem that I have had with this is that the narrative seems to continue to change.”
Seymour centered his explanation on affordability and urged caution about charging residents too much. “They (residents) spoke loud and clear to me and they can't pay anymore,” he said.
Seitz pushed back against the affordability argument and said a failure to raise rates will have the opposite effect. Kirschbaum and City Manager Don Tripp have previously explained that if the city doesn't generate enough revenue for the construction of Water2025, the project will be delayed and incur inflated costs. That means a steeper price tag for the treatment plant and higher rates down the line.
Seitz said, “If you care about costs for residents, it doesn't go away by deferring this, by delaying it, by putting our head in the sand. You can't make a problem go away by not addressing it.”
Tripp, who has guided most of the council discussions on water rates this year, was noticeably disappointed by the outcome of the study session. He was the last one to speak before the meeting ended, saying, “We'll come back with zero (percent rate increase). Just to clarify something: we made the recommendation we made because we do feel a responsibility to the community.”
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