City turns on the spigot for higher water, wastewater rates

2014-05-27T22:28:00Z 2014-05-28T17:18:07Z City turns on the spigot for higher water, wastewater ratesBy MIKE FERGUSON mferguson@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Most Billings residents will see increases in their water and wastewater rates beginning July 1. Most increases will be modest, but a few will be more substantial.

The Billings City Council voted 7-4 Tuesday on a proposal that will raise the average summertime water bill from $68.50 per month to $70.74 per month. Non-residential ratepayers, such as apartment-dwellers, will see a seasonal increase of 12 cents per hundred cubic feet — 748 gallons — from $2.75 per month to $2.87.

Wastewater rates for the average resident connected to a ¾-inch city meter will see their monthly bill go up by a nickel per month, from $6.40 to $6.45.

Council members Mike Yakawich, Denis Pitman, Angela Cimino and Rich McFadden voted against the rate hike. Voting in support were Mayor Tom Hanel and council members Brent Cromley, Becky Bird, Jani McCall, Al Swanson, Ken Crouch and Shaun Brown.

The largest water rate increase will be borne by the residents who place the most burden on the water delivery system — those who use the most water. Ratepayers who use 110 ccf per month — about 82,000 gallons — will see their bill rise from just under $300 per month to about $364, an increase of about 21 percent.

The increases are needed, Public Works officials explained, to comply with increasingly stringent state and federal safe-drinking-water requirements.

The city council heard from residents of the Ironwood subdivision. Darcy Frewin, president of the subdivision’s homeowner’s association, said she hasn’t heard of one of the 250 or so members in favor of the proposal.

In her eight-person household, summertime water rates will go up about $60 per month, she said, “and I think that’s excessive.” Some of her neighbors’ rates will rise $200 or $300 per month, she said.

“We live there because we like that environment, not so you can raise our taxes time and time again,” she told the council.

Greg Wing, another Ironwood resident, said his steepest water bills are about $800 per month. “The good news in my case,” said the chief financial officer for Stillwater Mining Company, “is that I can probably afford it.”

But not everybody can, said Scott Worthington, who said he finds his water bill burdensome even though turf covers only about one-third of his 15,000 square foot lot. “I’m doing what I can to conserve water, but I find it to be unfair for … the bulk of the burden to be borne by a small number of residents with large lots.”

Dan Wells, who lives in northwest Billings, said that by July, “our yard looks like prairie grass, not a lush yard. It feels like we are getting penalized, and I wonder if there isn’t another way.”

Kathleen Walters said she lives near the Rims “on the same kind of land as Ironwood.”

“Living in Montana, you will spend extra money keeping your lawn green,” she said. “I don’t like to see rates go up, but I understand why it has to go up.”

Bird said the city council must one day consider, “Is it morally ethical to dump city drinking water on green grass?”

“We really don’t have a lot of options,” Brown said, before “reluctantly” casting his vote in support of the rate increase.

“It is a fair process,” Hanel said. “The more you use, the more you pay. I’ll bet everyone in this room has stopped at a convenience store and spent a dollar for a pint of water. Getting more than 700 gallons for a couple of dollars, that’s a good deal.”

City Administrator Tina Volek noted this is the first water and wastewater increase the city has enacted in three years.

Other business

The city council voted unanimously to boost planning services by 7 percent for the two upcoming fiscal years, 2014-15 and 2015-16. Those increases are needed, said Wyeth Friday, Planning Division manager, to cover increases in personnel costs, for example, which are up about 20 percent over the last two years, the time of the most recent increase.

In another unanimous vote, the city council voted to annex a 19.5 acre parcel near the intersection of Grand Avenue and 56th Street West, and to approve on first reading a zoning change on the parcel, from Agriculture Open-Space to Residential 6,000.

Regal Land Development plans to build homes on the 74-lot parcel.

Also by an 11-0 count, the city council voted to transfer a 1.76-acre parkland in The Village Subdivision to Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth Health Systems, the developer of the St. Vincent Healthcare Subdivision at King Avenue West and South Shiloh Road.

In exchange, the developer of the medical campus is making improvements that will benefit the general public — including access to privately-built parklands and trail improvements — worth about $308,000, said Mark Jarvis, a city parks planner.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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