While some residents have expressed concern over Joplin’s rate increases for sewer service, city officials and an engineering consultant hired to determine those rates say they are necessary to make repairs needed to comply with state and federal regulations on the operation.
The Joplin City Council is set to take final action Monday on a rate plan that will raise bills by 5% a year, or a cumulative 25%, over the next five years. Bills will go up about $2 per month with the first increase in April, and in 2024, they will amount to about $12 per month over what residential customers are currently paying.
That comes on top of the current five-year rate plan, which pushed rates up a cumulative 61%. This year’s increase was 12%, taking monthly bills for residential users inside the city limits from about $39 to $44. Customers outside city limits also pay a 30% surcharge to cover their share of the liability for the $100 million wastewater system.
At a Dec. 2 meeting during which the panel voted to advance the rate plan to the final readings, council members heard from the mayor of Loma Linda, one of the neighboring communities that uses the city’s sewer system.
“This one issue, the sewer rates and what’s happened the last five years, we’ve received more complaints over that than anything,” the mayor, Bruce Anderson, told the council.
Lynden Lawson, the city’s public works operations manager who oversees wastewater operations, told the Globe that in working on the new rates, the city’s initial budget for projects would have driven rates up 8.5% instead of 5%.
That was considered too much after the last five-year cycle, so some small projects were combined and a few larger ones were delayed until the next five-year plan that will start in 2025 to reduce the size of the increases to 5%.
There is about $36 million in capital projects planned, compared with $19 million the past five years. There are two drivers of the increased spending.
David Hertzberg, the city’s public works director, said many of those projects are related to reducing water inflow and infiltration, which is the seepage of groundwater and stormwater into a leaky sewer system. Seepage drives up operational costs by sending large amounts of rainwater through the wastewater treatment system unnecessarily.
Replacement of aging infrastructure is another reason to raise spending.
The repairs are necessary for the city to adhere to a consent agreement with the state Department of Natural Resources.
Because of the city’s mineral deposits and mining sites, water runoff into the sewer system carries a high level of zinc and cadmium contamination that must be monitored and lowered when it reaches certain levels so that the contaminants are not discharged in streams. In Joplin’s case, its two sewer plants discharge water into Turkey Creek and Shoal Creek.
The city could have been fined by the state several years ago for violations of the Clean Water Act because of the heavy metal concentrations that drain into the creeks. Instead, a settlement was reached that allowed the city to spend the money on equipment and repairs to the system to begin reducing the inflow of stormwater. That inflow is laden with lead and zinc metals that leach from the soil during rains.
One of the budgeted expenditures during the next five years will provide $1.5 million to $1.75 million per year to help property owners pay for repairs to their sewer lines to reduce water infiltration or to move sump pumps or roof drainage that are hooked to the sanitary sewer rather than to streets and storm drains. That program is still being developed.
“You can reduce a lot more leakage into the system by investing on the property owner’s side” rather than putting all the sewer revenue into city infrastructure, Hertzberg said.
Lawson said that program is modeled after steps the city of Springfield took to button up its sewer system.
“That’s had a big impact at their plant” and lowered the peak flows of rainwater, Lawson said.
Joplin is working on lining and replacing older sewer lines and equipment and eliminating blockages.
“If you can reduce the inflow and infiltration by 30%, you are really making an impact on what happens at the plant” in terms of the cost for treating water, Lawson said.
A rate study commissioned by the city from Burns & McDonnell of Kansas City reported that the costs of residential water and sewer service are rising faster than other household costs.
“Replacement of aging infrastructure is one of the several dynamics impacting utility rates. Other dynamics generally include increasing regulatory requirements, inflation on operating and capital costs, and a trend in declining consumption most often associated with more efficient fixtures and appliances and greater awareness of water consumption,” the Burns & McDonnell engineering consultant, David Naumann, wrote in the study.
The report cites information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that water and sewer prices across the nation are currently rising about 5% per year compared with a 2% increase in the Consumer Price Index. That has meant an escalation in sewer rates since the year 2000 of more than 140%, compared with about 50% for inflation.
The recommended rates also are set to provide a cushion for emergency or unplanned repairs. Joplin’s rates are set to maintain a reserve of about $5 million. One emergency repair made in recent years cost $1.3 million, city officials said as an example of the need for reserve funding.
Anderson, the Loma Linda mayor, asked the Joplin council to consider in the future providing some kind of rate reduction for senior citizens and a rate plan for those with low incomes.
The council has discussed whether the city should charge more for the volume of water a household uses, which reflects how much goes into the sewer, in response to objections to the rate increases in particular by people on fixed incomes and with low incomes.
Hertzberg and Lawson said it would be difficult to establish and administer different rate classes among customers. There would have to be a system set up to identify different ratepayers, and it would have to be updated about every three months, Lawson said.
The current method of establishing rates, which does not include discounts for senior citizens or low-income residents, is more predictable for the city’s needs, Hertzberg said.
“There’s a fixed cost, and you want a fixed revenue” to cover those costs, he said. Otherwise, a city could run into trouble meeting its expenses, he said.
Sewer rates elsewhere
Much of the sewer bill is derived from a facility charge that is based on the size of the water service meter. For a meter that is 3/4-inch or smaller, that charge is $31.56 for city residents and $41.03 for customers outside the city limits. A 1-inch meter is charged $40.51. Rates go up to $466.20 for a 6-inch meter, which is used by industrial customers.
A volume charge is added to reflect the amount of water used. That charge is $2.07 per 1,000 gallons in the city and $2.69 outside the city. The city’s finance director, Leslie Haase, has said that the city averages three months of winter water usage to determine how much customers are billed for volume.
In a rate case last year involving Missouri American Water Co., which provides water service in Joplin but operates sewer services in several Missouri communities, there was a wide range of rates set depending on the size of a city and the company’s cost to provide the service.
For a residential sewer customer in the city of Arnold using 5,000 gallons of water a month, sewer rates are $32.64 a month. In addition, there is a monthly usage charge. Flat rates are charged in the Sedalia area of $38.75 per month, and in the Jefferson City area, $58.13.
Joplin has patterned its sewer system plans somewhat after Springfield, which also is operating under a consent decree with DNR to reduce inflow and infiltration and deal with aging infrastructure.
Springfield charges a base rate or facility charge of $19.80 plus $2.40 for each 748 gallons of water used. That amounts to a bill of about $34 a month, according to Springfield figures.
A task force appointed in Springfield in 2011 to look at sewer rates and the pricing structure considered a proposal to establish different classes of customers, but in the end it recommended sticking to single residential and nonresidential rates rather than adding other rates for seniors or other classifications of customers.
In a survey of 18 cities done by the study consultant, Joplin ranked in the middle behind cities such as O’Fallon, St. Louis, Excelsior Springs, Liberty, St. Joseph and Kansas City. Those rates ranged from about $45 a month to nearly $80.
Cities such as Columbia, Blue Springs, Independence and St. Charles had lower monthly bills, ranging from $30 to $40.
The Public Service Commission allowed a low-income program to be set up in the Missouri American rate case so that residents who could not afford their bills for specific reasons could apply for assistance.