Council considers sewage rate hikeSuperior’s City Council is considering a hefty increase in sanitary sewage rates over the next five years.
By: Shelley Nelson, Superior Telegram
Superior’s City Council is considering a hefty increase in sanitary sewage rates over the next five years.
The increase would pay for millions in upgrades to improve the city’s sanitary sewer system.
The council is considering an 8.75 percent increase annually for the next five years, recommended by its Finance Committee. The recommendation comes after a study of rates needed to support about $100 million in capital improvements to meet more stringent water quality standards and better manage the system’s capacity.
The new rates are expected to cover bonding for $24.8 million in projects.
It’s less steep than the increase originally proposed by the rate study, which called for a 12.5 percent increase annually this year through 2012, and 10 percent increases annually for 2013-2015.
The city decided against seeking funding for a $74.4 million membrane bio-reactor project planned for 2024 and 2025, said Finance Director Jean Vito.
The bio-reactors would allow the wastewater treatment plant to remove ammonia, phosphorus and nitrogen from wastewater, but the future water quality standards required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources remain uncertain.
Environmental Services Administrator Dan Romans said it’s known the standards will change, but what the new standard will be is unknown.
“We need to, first of all, make sure that the standard that we’re trying to meet will be the standard that ends up being negotiated at the end of this process so that these outrageous increases can be mitigated in some manner,” said Mayor Dave Ross.
After all, the increase would place Superior’s sewer rates higher than any of nine comparable Wisconsin communities. Only Duluth, which is operating under a consent decree after the EPA and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency took enforcement action, was the only of 10 cities studied with higher sewage rates than those proposed in Superior.
The goal is to avoid enforcement, Romans said. After all, development in Superior was restricted in the early 1990s when the DNR placed the city under a sewer moratorium.
“They’re in the process of setting the [new] standards,” said Kevin Rosseth, an Environmental Services chemist.
The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is working to establish phosphorus standards, which will be set EPA if they are not established by the state, Rosseth said.
Under the current rate structure under consideration, the 8.75 percent increase would occur annually over the next five years, and then drop down to a 1.5 percent increase after that, Vito said.
The increase would result in a user fee of $2.18 per month and unit charge of $5.39 per 100 cubic feet of water used starting in January, up from $2 and $4.96 currently.
By 2015, the monthly charge would climb to $3.04 with a unit charge of $7.54. For a typical family of four, using eight cubic feet of water monthly, the charge would go from $41.68 currently to $63.36 per month in 2015.
The last time city sewage rates increased was January 2007, when the rate rose 5.5 percent.
Romans said the city maintains a 20-year facility plan, and plans to fund them five years in advance.
“If we weren’t looking at these projects, we wouldn’t be looking at these major increases, Romans said. “They would probably track more with inflation. It is these projects that are driving our rates to go up.”
The projects are designed to address the key components of wastewater management – water quality standards and capacity management.
Among the $24.8 million in projects planned over the next five years are improvements in the treatment process, a downtown relief sewer to coincide with reconstruction of Tower Avenue, and a $10.4 million project to improve the flow of wastewater into the main treatment plant on East First Street.
“What we have found is that depending on factors in the plant [biological and temperature] our capacity runs from 5 million gallons per day to 15 million gallons per day,” said Steve Roberts, engineering manager for Environmental Services. By modifying the incoming pipe work at the treatment facility and enhancing processes, the city anticipates improving the inflow of wastewater and minimizing illegal sanitary sewer overflows along East Second Street.
Roberts said the goal is to improve processes in the most cost-effective manner.
Ross said the cost of changing environmental regulations was among the top discussions at the last Wisconsin Alliance of Cities meeting because communities statewide are facing expensive upgrades to meet new water quality standards.
“This is another tax, another increase in cost to local communities, where incomes aren’t growing, people are struggling to stay in their homes … and here we are increasing the cost for people to live in their homes,” Ross said. “These are increases that are not at all based on income ... this is becoming a big strain on the pocketbooks of the residents of Superior.”
The council considers the increase Sept. 21 and could set the new rate then.