By consensus during Tuesday’s work session, the Billings City Council agreed that water and wastewater rates should go up during the 2018-19 fiscal year after the council last year denied requested rate increases for the current fiscal year.

The council will decide later how large the increases will be.

A presentation by Jennifer Duray, finance manager for the Public Works Department, identified three options for council consideration:

  • The council could approve rate hikes recommended for the current fiscal year — an average increase of 3.1 percent for water and 2.7 percent for wastewater.
  • It could instead OK the rate increases that were scheduled for the 2018-19 fiscal year — 4.7 percent for water, and 5.3 percent for wastewater.
  • Or it could continue the current rates. That would require cuts in capital projects scheduled for the coming fiscal year by $945,000 in water and $905,000 in wastewater.

Keeping rates flat during the current fiscal year meant that Public Works officials had to trim $750,000 from both the water and the wastewater funds. That eliminated a $180,000 water meter management and customer service software purchase and $570,000 from a reservoir project. It also removed $500,000 from a developer reimbursement program and $100,000 from a pipe bursting program, and reduced wastewater pipe replacements by $150,000.

Some council members have said they don’t favor the current practice of providing city departments free water and wastewater, a policy that’s been in place since 2004. The largest beneficiary last year was the Parks, Recreation and Public Lands Department, which saved more than $358,000 in unbilled water and wastewater costs. Public Works' Streets Division saved more than $155,000. All told, the city’s ratepayers were billed more than $585,000 to cover the provision of no-cost water and wastewater.

An ash tree towers near the playground at Veterans Park in this 2014 file photo. Billings parks workers have installed automatic irrigation systems in a handful of parks in an effort to reduce water consumption. CASEY PAGE, Gazette Staff

Recommended rate increases will be reduced if Public Works staff are directed to begin billing other city departments for their water and wastewater consumption.

Charging departments their water bill would save residential ratepayers an average of $8.52 per year. The practice would have no effect on residential customers’ wastewater bills.

The last water rate increases for residential customers was in July 2014. For commercial customers, it was a year later.

If the council approves the first option, a residential ratepayer using 14 ccf of water — a little more than 10,000 gallons per month — would pay an additional $1.27 each month, seeing their monthly bill rise from $38.94 to $40.21. The higher option would add an additional 56 cents per month to the bill, bringing it to $40.77.

The first option would drive up what’s now a $12.85 per month residential wastewater bill 33 cents, to $13.18. The second option would add an additional 36 cents to the monthly bill, bringing it to $13.54.

Council members also want to learn more about how customer assistance programs can be implemented to help low-income residents. Duray said at least four options are available, but an agency willing to partner with the city must first be identified:

  • Bill discounts, a flat amount or percentage reduction for qualifying households.
  • Crisis vouchers, one-time payments based on such criteria as income or extraordinary medical expenses.
  • Bill forgiveness and goodwill adjustments, which are similar to crisis vouchers.
  • Targeted conservation, which features distributing water-saving devices to low-income households.

Staff believes that beginning a customer assistance program "is very doable,” Duray told the council. “We recommend partnering with an agency, and we think someone would be willing to partner with us.”

After council members said they’ve been using conservation practices to lower their water bills, Public Works Director Dave Mumford said that overall water consumption in Billings has leveled off in recent years, despite the population increase.

“Water conservation is working,” Mumford said.