Joplin City Council to vote on usage-based plan that would triple some rates over next five years

By Debby Woodin

Globe Staff Writer

Bill Wine says he has questioned the city before about the way sewer fees are assessed.

The Joplin resident owns two single-tenant apartments at his house, and pays three wastewater fees for his home and the two apartments.

"So I'm paying $21 when other households have five or six people (who generate more wastewater)," he said. "It's not a very democratic fee."

Wine said he is in favor of a usage-based fee system.

"I'm in favor of the user fee," he said. "I think that's the fair approach. I'm subsidizing a lot of people (under the current rate structure).

"I want to pay a fair rate, but I don't want to be subsidizing other people."

Joplin residents will get their turn to tell city officials what they think of proposed hikes in sewer rates. A public hearing on the issue is scheduled as part of the City Council's meeting at 6 p.m. today at City Hall, 303 E. Third St.

Council members will vote on whether to implement a usage-based rate plan that, over the next five years, would triple residential rates and surcharges to high-use industries, as well as quadruple commercial rates. The proposal comes as a result of forecasts that, without price increases, the city's sewer fund would fall short by $1 million in fiscal 2005 and $2.25 million the following year.

Shortfalls in the cost of treating wastewater have been covered in past years by using money generated by franchise taxes - taxes paid on utility bills - that go into the city's general fund, said Harold McCoy, the public works director and interim city manager.

That money - $4.2 million of it this year - needs to be reserved for paying wages and salaries of city employees, increased health-insurance costs, and providing police and fire protection and parks and health services, McCoy said. The option is to reduce those services to pay for wastewater treatment if a rate hike is not implemented, he said.

The measure would convert rates from flat fees, currently $7 a month for residential users, to usage-based.

This year, residential customers would be assessed a "facility charge" of $9.57 a month for maintenance of the sewer system and the treatment plants at Turkey Creek and Shoal Creek, plus 63 cents per 1,000 gallons for cleaning the water.

That would make the bill for an "average" user of 6,000 gallons water a month $13.35 this year, graduating to $21.01 in fiscal 2008. Households of one or two people using less than 3,000 gallons would pay about $10.83 a month, according to McCoy.

"This is a fair and equitable way to assist senior citizens and one- and two-person households," McCoy said. Because the city is negotiating for a franchised trash hauler to reduce residential trash rates from about $15 a month to $7 a month, the cost of increased sewer rates "will be a wash," he said. "To some it will be a savings."

Industries that do not pre-treat water used in manufacturing would be assessed higher surcharges.

Industrial water takes up half the capacity of the Turkey Creek treatment plant, and the city's rates have been low for years, so "all they are doing is paying their equitable share," of water-treatment costs, McCoy said of industrial and commercial users. "They've been getting a good deal in the past."

The current rates have been in place since voters in 1991 approved a sewage-treatment fee. There have been no raises in the fees in the 13 years since then.

People who want to speak at tonight's public hearing do not have to sign up in advance. The council will open the floor to anyone who wants to speak, McCoy said.

Wine said that in addition to questioning why he has to pay extra fees for single-tenant apartments, he is critical of the size of the proposed fee increases.

"Actually, if they're doubling the bill, that means something is wrong," Wine said.

That creates questions about whether the rate structure has been properly managed, he said.

McCoy said he knew people would question whether the proposed hikes are due to management errors. He discounted that criticism, saying the need for higher rates is due to increased costs in operations that make it no longer possible to cover shortages from the utility-franchise fees. Additionally, he said, much of the money flowing into the general fund is earmarked for specific purposes, particularly revenue from grants to pay for specific projects.

Mayor Richard Russell said earlier, though, that the city probably should have looked at the situation before.

Russell said in October that increasing costs of operation, industrial growth, and needed expansion and renovation of the treatment plants and infrastructure to accommodate the growth are reasons for the need for rate hikes.

"If we'd been tweaking this as we went along, we may not have been where we are today," the mayor said at the time. "It might not have been such an impact all at once."

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