Turning on the tap is getting more expensive in Helper. The city council has adopted a new rate structure that will hike basic water rates by more than 60 percent. The usage fees will also increase by a like amount.
In presenting the case for the rate increase, Councilman Chris Pugliese and Mayor Dean Armstrong said the city must find a way to finance an extensive renovation of its aging water systems. Culinary, sewer and storm piping and equipment have deteriorated over the decades, creating problems with flooding, road damage and lots of extra labor repairing pipe breaks.
Armstrong said in earlier discussions that the days of getting full grants for these projects are gone. State and federal agencies won't part with public funds unless they see that the recipients are carrying their share of the burden.
As a result, the monthly operations and maintenance fee for households will jump from $12 to $19.50 - a 62.5 percent increase. The charges for gallons used will go to $2.50 per 1,000 gallons for the first 10,000 gallons from the previous $1.50 rate. That's a 66.6 percent increase.
Rates per 1,000 gallons go up as usage increases. For consumption between 10,000 and 25,000 gallons, the rate is $3.00. People who use more than 45,000 gallons a month would pay $4.00 for every 1,000 gallons over that threshold.
The council's action also includes for the first time a charge for so-called "dormant" connections. These are vacant homes or buildings that are still connected to the system but have so far been paying nothing. From now on, these connections will be charged a $19.50 per month standby fee.
The objective is to get absentee landlords to pay a share of the system maintenance or to sell the homes and shops so new occupants can take over. "One person told me that the vacant house he has is the cheapest storage unit he can find," Armstrong said at October's council meeting.
Earlier this year, the mayor had explained that the extra money in the water department coffers would be leveraged with grants. Grants often come as a multiple of what local governments contribute, so for every dollar Helper puts up, it stands a chance of receiving a like amount of matching funds or more.
The water increase follows a 65 percent property tax increase passed last summer. At a public hearing on that matter, citizens peppered the council with questions about how the extra money would be spent.
The answer to that question may be known shortly. The council has given provisional approval to a contract with Franson Civil Engineering to survey the town's water systems and collaborate on a plan to revamp the whole infrastructure.