North Park

The Billings City Council unanimously approved a 10-year parks master plan during its Monday business meeting.

CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Billings department heads will explore a City Council idea to charge all city departments for their water, sewer and garbage services.

“The question,” said City Administrator Tina Volek Wednesday, “is how we pay for it.”

During a council discussion last week that preceded a vote against raising water and wastewater rates for the 2017-18 fiscal year, Councilman Larry Brewster said one of the reasons he opposed those proposed increases is that many departments aren’t charged for their utilities. It’s a practice that dates back more than a dozen years.

“It’s not the way we are to be doing business,” Brewster said Wednesday.

“We’ll probably have to wait a year” before making the change, he said, adding that he wants any change to be revenue-neutral. While homeowners can’t deduct their utility bills from on their tax returns, Brewster noted, they can deduct their property taxes.

A study released Tuesday by Jennifer Duray, the Public Works Department’s finance manager, showed the unbilled utility charges during the current fiscal year will total about $602,000. By far the largest current benefactor is the Parks, Recreation and Public Lands Department, which was not charged for almost $409,000 worth of utilities during 2016-17.

Parks Director Michael Whitaker said the department is constantly looking to decrease its dependence on city water. For example: the spray ground being built at South Park will recirculate water, rather than employing the “spray to drain” systems at the city’s four other splash pads.

Water from the Castle Rock Park splash pad drains into a pond that is used to irrigate the park, he noted. But the other three don't have recirculating capabilities.

Retrofitting those four splash pads into recirculating systems would be difficult, Volek said.

Whitaker said parks officials are strategizing ways to further cut back water consumption at Billings parks.

“When a new park comes online, we first look for a ditch to irrigate it,” he said. “Our next option is to dig a couple of wells. City water is our last choice for irrigating.”

Several parks, including Veterans Park, have automated irrigation systems that monitor weather conditions to minimize consumption.

“It’s our large, older parks that are on the old manual system,” Whitaker said.

Public Works Director Dave Mumford said the change will be “cleaner.” The current system masks a portion of the true cost a number of city departments spend each year.

“People think of the general fund as straight property taxes,” Mumford said. “If you are supposed to be paying for something, don’t bring money in from someplace else.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.