The Kalispell City Council has delayed until Feb. 22 a decision on whether to raise sewer rates 5 percent.
The proposed rate hike, first put before the council in October, is necessary to pay for the operation and maintenance of the city’s Wastewater Treatment Plant, because the stagnant economy has resulted in less-than-anticipated growth in the number of citizens using the facility.
According to City Manager Jane Howington, the economic downturn is actually leading to a decline in the number of users for the Kalispell Wastewater Treatment Plant, “and a lot of that is because of the foreclosed homes and empty houses.”
The proposed sewer rate increase is estimated to raise $73,000, enough to pay for operations through the end of the current fiscal year. A memo to council shows sewer revenue from July through November of this year down almost 5 percent. By the end of June, revenues are estimated at $3,054,874, down from $3,214,270 last year.
But even if the council approves the proposed 5 percent rate hike, Howington has made clear to council that another rate increase would be necessary within the next two years. As a result, she is working on a “multi-year, comprehensive study,” to present to council members in February on sewer fund projections and maintenance and operations assumptions for the plant.
“Council has now seen that we have a bigger problem, and we have to come back with a full five-year plan, so the ratepayers know what’s coming up on the horizon,” Howington said.
A hearing on the proposed rate increase, with no public comment offered, on Dec. 6.
The easiest way to solve the problem would be to attract more users to the sewer system – a solution in more populous areas, but not Montana. Howington is also negotiating rates with Glacier Gold, the Olney compost business that accepts waste from the city, and the Evergreen Water and Sewer District to see if new agreements could potentially lower the month-to-month operational costs of the facility.
She is also asking the Wastewater Treatment Plant’s staff to look at ways of lowering operational costs, from reducing electricity use to doing water testing in-house, instead of sending samples to an outside lab.
“Everybody, including myself, is reticent to ask for an increase of anything,” Howington said. “On the other hand, we have a responsibility to our citizens to be fiscally prudent.”
“The fact that we built a plant, and we have to pay the debt on that, we have to find an organized way to do that,” she added.
Adding to Howington’s responsibilities will be the retirement of Public Works Director Jim Hansz at the end of the year. Assistant City Engineer Paul Burnham will take over as city engineer, and Howington will handle the administration of the department for anywhere from two to six months. Hansz currently acts as the city’s chief engineer, and manages administrative duties, so Howington wants to determine whether that’s how the department should be organized next year and beyond.
“I really want to look and analyze that,” she said. “That will help me determine how, specifically, we’re going to post the job.”
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