Kalispell to Vote on Sewer Rate Increase

By Beacon Staff

Kalispell City Council plans to vote on whether to increase sewer rates, due to the cost of operating the wastewater treatment plant outstripping the current revenue it is generating. At a recent work session, at which no votes are allowed, council members heard the rationale for raising the bi-monthly base sewer rate from $3.75 to $15.

Columbia Falls City Manager Bill Shaw, hired as a consultant by the city, presented an analysis showing that too much of Kalispell’s plan to pay off the debt service on the wastewater treatment plant is based upon charging for volume, which covers consumption instead of the base rate. This payment structure is failing to cover the fixed costs, on a monthly basis, of the plant’s operation.

The plan proposed by Shaw and City Manager Jane Howington would increase the base sewer rate in the current fiscal year, increase the volume rate the following year and increase the volume rate slightly higher the year after that. This fee increase assumes no population growth over the next two years, then a half-percent increase over the following three years. Though Shaw presented two other scenarios, he and Howington leaned toward this proposal as the “soundest assumption.”

Last year Howington put before council a 5 percent increase in sewer rates due to a decline in the number of users at the city’s wastewater treatment plant. The five-year plan amounts to a longer-term, more comprehensive way of tackling the sewer rate problem, as opposed to confronting a new and unexpected rate increase every year.

The operating budget at the plant has been reduced, and Howington has renegotiated the contract with Glacier Gold, a compost company that accepts waste from the city. Howington also seeks to reopen the sewer agreement with Evergreen to renegotiate certain terms.

At the Feb. 14 work session, she proposed a 25-cent increase to the solid waste rate for the next fiscal year, and a proposal to redistribute the street maintenance assessment program, to offset the increases in water, sewer and solid waste rates.

“We recognize that this is a very, very difficult time to consider something like that,” Howington said, “The redistribution of those assessments is going to more than offset your property owners’ increase in water and sewer rates.”

“This can make water and street maintenance healthy again,” she added, “without having any major bottom-line increase on our citizens and our property owners.”

Councilman Duane Larson said failing to bring Kalispell’s sewer rate structure in-line could have other effects.

“To me it seems obvious that we’re upside down on this ratio and we’re getting to the point where we need to protect our bond rating,” he said.

Councilman Bob Hafferman lamented the increase in the administrative fee of more than 400 percent, and questioned whether the storm sewer fund could pay for the wastewater treatment plant’s expansion.

“It’s just another cross to bear for those many individuals trying to eke out an existence,” Hafferman said, while acknowledging, “the easy savings have probably been wrung out of the system.”

Councilman Jim Atkinson noted that, had growth continued the way it was when the $14 million-expansion of the wastewater treatment plant was approved, Kalispell wouldn’t be in this situation.

“But those people didn’t come and we’re left with the debt,” Atkinson said. “We have to pay for that debt; we have to pay for the operating costs.”

“If in five years my sewer bill is $11.23 more per month than it is today, I think that’s a fairly reasonable increase relative to all of the other expenses in the world,” Atkinson added.

The city council will schedule a public hearing on the rate increase for March 21, and likely vote on the issue April 4.

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