Carbon County residents can anticipate an increase to sewer and water bills beginning on Jan. 1, 2007.
The Price River Water Improvement District's board of directors passed a proposed rate increase on Tuesday with a 4-1 vote.
The increase will affect all customers who use PRWID services, including residents of Helper, Price and Wellington as well as a large portion of western Carbon County.
The Nov. 14 decision to raise rates came after a public hearing conducted earlier in the evening.
As the rate increase was supported by a majority of the board, Karl Houskeeper cast the single vote against the proposal.
For more than three months, the board has been discussing a possible rate increase after financial advisers reported that the district was not meeting bond obligations and needed to generate revenues to cover the debts.
"We have been slowly whittling away at our [operations and maintenance] budget so we can make the bond payments," said Jeff Richens, PRWID's assistant district manager, as he introduced the proposed increase prior to the public hearing. "We don't have the funds to meet our [operations and maintenance] costs and make our bond payments."
As PRWID has been tightening the water improvement district's belt in order to make debt service payments, costs of materials and fuel have skyrocketed, in many cases by double or more.
Meanwhile, insurance and labor costs have continued to rise.
Many of the outside influences are the same as what customers are experiencing, noted board member Keith Cox.
While the district has cut operational and other budgets in past years in order to delay a rate increase, eventually, the cost increases would need to be passed on to customers.
District manager Phil Palmer said the board and staff had requested recommendations from the district's financial advisers.
The figures had come in significantly higher than proposed.
Recommendations from financial advisers had suggested an increase which would have generated revenue to cover the district's bond requirements in one year.
The board had decreased the figures presented by advisers and opted to meet bond obligations within four years.
However, the reduced figures still seemed too high to some at the public hearing.
"What you're asking for is a double increase," said Newton Dorrett, who lives in an unincorporated area of the county.
Customers like Dorrett will be hit by both water and sewer rate increase, whereas residents in Price and Helper will only see increases to sewer rates.
A flat $1.50 will be added to sewer rates in the water district. In unincorporated areas, customers can expect the increase on their first bill after the new year.
For sewer connections within the cities, the district bills each city directly.
Each city council will need to review the increase from PRWID and determine how to apply the increased rates to customers.
Rates on water are variable based on how much a water user uses.
For retail customers, the base rate, which includes up to 6,000 gallons of water, will increase from $20.84 to $23.
Rates for wholesale customers like Spring Glen Water Company or Wellington residents will increase from $17.37 to $19.50.
Similar to the increase in sewer rates, Wellington's city council will need to determine how to apply the increase to its users.
Price and Helper, both of which operate independent water systems, are not affected by the PRWID rate increase.
Beyond the base rate, users will see an increase in overages beyond the first 6,000.
Under the previous rate structure, users were charged $1.16 per thousand gallons from 7,000 gallons to 40,000; $1.45 from 41,000 to 100,000 gallons; and $1.56 for 100,000 gallons and above.
The new rate structure creates a fourth tier for overages.
From 7,000 to 30,000 gallons, water will be billed at $1.50 per thousand gallons; from 31,000 to 60,000, $2.00; from 61,000 to 100,000, $2.50; and more than 100,000, $3.00.
Board members estimated that the average household in Carbon County uses 16,000 gallons of culinary water per month. Under the previous rate structure, that would have cost $32.44. For the same 16,000 gallons, users will pay $38.
Dorrett said he thought the water improvement district was being mismanaged, and said management should be removed if they can't do their job.
Dorrett's neighbor, William Witte, pointed out that while the costs of fuel, water, electricity and other utilities is increasing, his wages are not.
Witte encouraged the board to "tighten their corporate belt a little."
Concerns over mismanagement extended to others at the public hearing.
"The only time I see something like this is when something is completely wrong," said Elias Perez, who lives in Gordon Creek.
Perez suggested that the district pursue more grants to pay for increasing costs and to pay for necessary upgrades.
However, board member Richard Tatton pointed out that many of the funding resources available to the district offer grants in conjunction with loans. So as the district pursues more grants, it is also likely to incur more debt.
The water improvement district board also heard opposition to the increase from waste water hauler companies.
Jessie McCourt, who operates a hauler company in Carbon County, said that the rates were high when compared with other water districts in the state.
As part of the increase, the PRWID board approved rates which doubled all hauler rates, including septic tanks, gray water, produced groundwater and portable toilets.
Hauler rates have not been increased since 1994. During the same period, sewer rates have nearly doubled.
Board member Mike Dalpiaz said that raising hauler rates was nothing more than bringing rates up to par with everyone else.
However, Darren Curtiss, who operated another hauler company, told board members that the new prices will force companies like his to increase rates.
As a result, hauler companies in Carbon County will out price themselves, said Curtiss.
"The rate increase seems to be really picking on us and septic tank users," commented Curtiss.
Curtiss said septic tank customers will be more likely to call other companies and get the same service at a lower rate.
The result will not be increased revenues for the district because local companies will be bringing in fewer loads and out of area companies will be dumping elsewhere.
Another concern raised by Curtiss and McCourt is that the dumping facilities are not completely adequate for rinsing trucks, and asked that the district improve those facilities.
Others were more amenable to a rate increase but questioned the structure of rates.
"We understand the need for a rate increase," said county resident Steven Rigby.
Rates increased by a steeper percentage for high water users, Rigby pointed out, noting that the cost per gallon for water users consuming more than 100,000 gallons or more nearly doubled.
Steeper rates, however, are a part of the district's conservation plan. In order to qualify for certain funding resources, the district needs to have a plan in place to promote water conservation.
Board members acknowledged that encouraging conservation may cut into the profits. The high volumes of water cost no more per gallon to deliver, but the district encourages users to conserve by charging high users at a steeper rate.
"If you use more water, you need to pay for it," said Dalpiaz. "We put a lot of thought into this. I think the big users need to pay more."
High water users also tend to be businesses and can budget for high water consumption. With larger customers paying more, rate increases to smaller users, mostly home owners and small businesses, were affected less.
"We tried to keep rates low for small families with fixed income," said board member Tom Matthews.
However, not all members of the public were opposed.
Brett Richardson, a Helper resident who works for the water district, asked why the board wasn't increasing rates more.
Richardson said managers within the water improvement district were operating on tighter and tighter budgets as PRWID reduced its operating cost.
As a result, the needed system upgrades and maintenance were getting delayed.
Within five years, the water improvement district will need to upgrade many portions of its system and many pieces of equipment currently in operation are obsolete.
The struggle between meeting the district's needs and keeping user fees low has been one of the overriding factors that has kept the PRWID board from raising rates.
"We're doing the best we can with the funds we have," said Cox, who also pointed out that if the district funded all of the needed upgrades, the increase would be substantially more than what was proposed.
Dalpiaz explained that as costs continue to escalate and as water and sewer systems require service, the district may be forced to revisit the rate issue.
"I wouldn't be surprised if we need to do this again next year," said. Dalpiaz "The district is in financial trouble."