Water and sewer rates will go up an average of 5 percent beginning July 1 for about 114,000 Billings residents as well as the city’s commercial users.
But because the city’s $2.50 per month franchise fee has been removed from the proposed 2018-19 budget, the average total residential utility bill — water, wastewater and the solid waste fee — will go up 31 cents per month, from $76.13 to $76.44, or about four-tenths of 1 percent.
The vote Monday by the Billings City Council to increase the rates was 10-1, with Councilman Larry Brewster casting the lone vote against the proposal.
Last year the council turned down proposed increases. But with large capital projects in the near future, including a West End water treatment plant presently slated for the 2021-22 fiscal year, the public works department’s finance manager, Jennifer Duray, said the department will probably be seeking 3 percent water and wastewater increases each year for the next three years beginning with the 2019-20 fiscal year.
Residents told council members they weren’t in favor of the increases.
Ron Williams said none of his utility bills fluctuate like his city water bill. He said his water bill for 2017 was just under his bills from Montana Dakota Utilities and NorthWestern Energy combined.
With the council deciding between two options for increase, Rodney Garcia suggested a third option — drop the proposal entirely.
“Let people live a little bit,” he told the council. “You are taxing people right out of their homes.”
Gregory Wing said his summertime monthly watering bill sometimes approaches $1,200 for his one-acre property, “and that’s for every other day watering.”
Billings sells water for about a penny for three gallons. Even with the increases, the city's water rates are less than those of Butte, Bozeman, Helena and Missoula. The city's wastewater rates are in the middle of the pack for the state's largest cities — behind Bozeman, Kalispell and Butte and higher than Helena, Great Falls and Missoula.
But Billings' water and wastewater system is aging. The city is constructing a $65 million addition to its wastewater treatment plant, a need driven mostly by regulatory requirements.
With about $4 million spent on pipe replacements and other rehabilitation projects annually, less than 3 miles of pipes are replaced each year. That means pipes in Billings must last 180 years, about 20 years below the national average.
Duray said the city’s wastewater interceptors are “badly in need of replacement,” with the cost pegged at about $12.7 million. Without rate increases, that cost would have to come out of the pipe replacement program.
“I voted against the increase last time,” said Councilman Mike Yakawich. “But Councilman (Frank) Ewalt and I toured the water treatment plant recently, and I was impressed with the investment and the energy that goes into our water treatment plant.”
“I don’t think we have any other option this time around,” said Councilman Shaun Brown.
“In my book,” said Mayor Bill Cole, “31 cents per month is not a bad price to pay for all those benefits.”