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City flooded with expensive projects

NORTH LIBERTY– Water and sewer expenses are on the rise in North Liberty.
So are customers’ rates.
The North Liberty City Council approved the first reading of an ordinance to raise both the water utility and sewer utility rates for North Liberty residents and businesses. The new rates include an eight percent increase in the base sewer rate of $1.75 (from $21.82 to $23.57), and increase of 30¢ per 1,000 gallons used ($4.04 instead of the current $3.74).
The base water rate will go up by $1.37, (from $11.44 to $12.81) and an additional 51¢ per 1,000 gallons used, a 12 percent overall increase.
According to City Administrator Ryan Heiar, it means an average family of four using 3,000-4,000 gallons of water will see about an additional $5 to $7 total on their monthly utility bills. Heavier water users would see a larger increase, up to an additional $12 for consumers of 11,000 gallons a month.
The first consideration of the rate increase passed 3-2, with council members Gerry Kuhl and Terry Donahue voting against it.
Instead, Donahue moved and Kuhl seconded the motion to table the rate increases until the public could have better notification of why they are necessary.
“When it has come to anything substantial financial in nature, we have given the public the courtesy of good foreknowledge of why we are doing it,” Donahue said. “The public has the right to know what we’re going to do with that money and the projects at hand. That way we can at least say ‘this is what our plan is,’ and not just raising it to be raising it.”
Mayor Tom Salm asked if the council’s discussions during the budget approval process had not been enough. Donahue didn’t think so.
“We have talked in generalities, but when it comes to budget things like this, (people) tend to see the end results when they get the bill (and then ask questions). It’s just a thing of trying to project our promise of better communication with folks,” Donahue replied.
Donahue felt tabling the first reading until the council’s next meeting would give the public an opportunity to attend the public hearing and make comments.
City Attorney Scott Peterson said the council could entertain comments on the rate hike even at its second and third reading if they chose, though notification of the public’s opportunity to speak by publishing it in advance would be up to the council and not required.
Council members Brian Wayson, Chris Hoffman and Coleen Chipman all said they felt comfortable proceeding with the first reading as long as Heiar would reiterate the list of projects and allow for public comment in the next two readings.
“If anyone has been paying any attention to us in the last year, we’ve known this has been coming in the last couple years, specifically in our budget sessions. Those are all open meetings. It is something we’ve talked about, but I would be in favor of Ryan doing a quick overview,” Hoffman said.
Heiar obliged, noting that in the last three years, there have been no sewer rate increases at all, and only one increase in the water rate, but there are a number of expensive sewer and water maintenance projects in the city’s Capital Improvements Plan that need to be addressed, including: updating the old sewer trunk along Cherry Street; replacing several older water lines, including an aging main along Hickory Street (about $750,000); installing a loop system near Jones Boulevard, estimated to cost $800,000; removal of the old water tower; painting a new one (estimated at $350,000); addressing an old ground storage water tank; keeping up with the increased electricity costs generated by the city’s new Aquifer Storage Recover (ASR) well; covering the increasing costs of salt used to soften the growing populations’ water; and keeping spare parts on hand at the city’s high-tech wastewater treatment facility, parts that have to be ordered from overseas and are very costly.
Donahue said he wanted people to be aware of the potential for future increases as well, based on recommendations made through a sanitary sewer study completed by Fox Engineering in 2011, and a water facilities study Fox will conduct this year.
“Again, in discussing specific projects noted on the rate pages, a sewer line replacement is noted at $1.4 million; installation of the east trunk sewer, we’re looking at $4 million; with more long-term projects we are looking at $1.71; and a wastewater expansion estimated at $12 million. We will be facing escalating sewer rate increases over the next number of years,” Donahue said.
The first consideration passed with the understanding that the subsequent readings of the rate increase would each include an opportunity for public comment.
“I think with any rate increases, the public should be well informed and understand the reasons why,” said Chipman. “As much effort should be given to let them comment on it. I do believe we have talked about this at several different meetings, but it’s all put in with the budget. This is a stand-alone. Education is critical.”
The second consideration of the water and sewer rate hikes is expected to appear on the council’s April 24 meeting agenda. The public will be allowed to comment, and the council members and city administration will accept emailed or written comments prior to the meeting as well.