Workers Gary Harwood (top of photo) and D.J. Romero repair pipe near Helper Junior High School. The city's water system is aging.
As Helper Mayor Dean Armstrong noted at Thursday's council meeting, the town's water is basically free. The city owns its springs. What isn't free is the system that brings the water to town, stores it, and delivers it 24/7 to every faucet and sprinkler.
That system is showing signs of old age - around 70 years - so the mayor and council are seriously considering a water rate hike to pay for some much-needed upgrades. Also on the table is a provision to begin charging "dormant" connections - unoccupied buildings that are metered but don't use water - for their share of maintaining and improving the system.
The proposed rate recommended by councilman Chris Pugliese would raise the monthly base rate to $19.25 from its current $12.00. In addition, volume rates would increase. As rates are now set, the first increase in rates per 1,000 gallons (from $2.00 to $2.50) happens at the 10,000 gallon per month step. Under the proposed rates, The first 10,000 gallons would be charged at a rate of $2.50 per 1,000 gallons, with 50-cent increases in that rate triggered after each 5,000 gallons after that. Maximum rate would be $4.00 for use over 20,000.
Pugliese, who has consulted with other rural water companies, said that Helper "is behind the curve on what we charge for our water" compared to other systems. He and the mayor also noted that the lag in pricing also makes it tough to find help from outside funding sources like the Community Impact Board. "We don't qualify for a lot of help," the councilman said. "The attitude is, if we don't help ourselves, why should they help us?"
Pugliese figures that the impact on the average consumer would be about $9 per month, going from $28 per month to $37. The majority of households in town use less than 5,000 gallons per month in winter, he added.
As for the houses and shops that use zero gallons per month - the so-called "dormant" connections - Mayor Armstrong said it would be a good idea to begin charging them a standby fee because the city still has to maintain the system for them even though they are not using water at the time. How much that fee would be is still undecided. Councilman Gary Harwood estimated that there are about 50 such unused hookups in the city.
If the city were to charge the base rate of $19.25, that would bring in about $1,000 per month for the water department.
As elsewhere in the state and nation, Helper is experiencing a decline in sales tax revenue, which means subsidizing water rates is no option. Municipal rate adjustments are subject to public notice and public hearing.