At the Dec. 7 meeting of the Price River Water Improvement District, board members were presented with figures concerning $195,613.56 in billings that staff indicated had not been paid by Wellington City for their water and sewer charges from the last few months.
On Tuesday night, Karl Houskeeper, the mayor of Wellington, and a member of the PRWID board disputed those numbers and asked not only for the district to look at the errors in them, but to go back and refigure charges on water rates from the past months as well.
"We have done some research and as of Dec. 29 it appears to us that we only owe around $120,000 and of that we are only actually in arrears on $72,168.41 of that amount," said Houskeeper as he handed out a sheet showing various calculations concerning the figures in the matter. "The numbers presented in the last meeting and as reported in the Sun Advocate are wrong."
While it appeared Houskeeper was ready to address the issue at the meeting already, the impetus for the presentation came from Ralph Fossat, a citizen of Helper who asked during the public comment period how the board could consider raising taxes and service rates when Wellington owed so much money.
"When all this came out in the paper I thought we would have a room full of citizens here when we had the hearing on the tax increase, but we hardly had any," said board member Tony Gonzales. "I was surprised."
Gonzales' comments that were reported in the paper were also a concern of the mayors, as well. Gonzales had said that he understood the problems that Wellington was facing on paying down the bill. But he said he also felt it wasn't fair that Helper had paid their bills to PRWID for emergency water due to the city's supply line failure this past year, yet Wellington had not.
"I agree with board member Gonzales that it isn't fair," said Houskeeper. "But it isn't fair that we aren't billed at the same rate for water either."
What Houskeeper was referring to was the fact that during the time Helper needed emergency water for their city, PRWID was charging Helper a $1.16 per thousand gallons, while at the same time charging Wellington, a regular wholesale customer, $2.90 per thousand gallons.
"As a member of the board that $1.16 rate is not fair for Wellington or those in the county (who pay $3.47 on base rate) who are customers," said the mayor. "We shouldn't charge a lower rate to all others when regular customers are paying more."
A number of the board members were concerned about the situation, including board member Betty Wheeler, who is the representative from the Price City Council.
Jeff Richens, the district's assistant manager explained that on a short term basis the district charges customers like Helper the regular overage rate of $1.16.
"If it became a long term thing then we would have to negotiate a base rate for that customer," he said.
Housekeeper pointed out that had Helper been billed one of the base rates that PRWID uses for its regular customers, its bill would have been much higher over the March through December period that the town actually used water.
"We shouldn't penalize Helper now, but it wouldn't have been as easy for them to pay their bill if that had been done," pointed out the mayor as he showed figures that reflected his point of view. Helper actually paid $66,710.44 for water they bought from PRWID last year. Some of the figures that Housekeeper presented with base rates that the district applies to other customers could have had them paying as much as $200,000 for that same water. "What we feel would be fair is that the district look at our bill and rebill us for water based on what Helper was billed per thousand this last year. The district is penalizing long term, regular customers and even their retail county residents."
But Richens said that doing that would mean restructuring Wellington's rates.
"The reason for the rates the way they are is because long term customers have base rates for the system," he said.
Base rates are used by water companies to establish stability for their finances. In some cases along the Wasatch Front base rates were very low for years because people used so much excess water every season that the revenue generated by that provided enough money to run the districts. However, with water conservation efforts during the last few years because of the drought, those water companies' financial stability has been affected a great deal. That is one of the many reasons base rates in those counties are increasing so dramatically.
Keith Cox, board chair said that the district would not consider doing away with Wellington's debt for the services they have been rendered.
"However I want everyone to know that Wellington has been paying us, just not as much as needed," he said.
Fossat explained that he was concerned about how long the situation had been going on with Wellington being in arrears. The answer to that question was unclear, but the staff did say it was for some time.
While the meeting was going on the staff was also doing some research into how it was determined to charge temporary users like Helper the price they do for water. It turned out that the price was established at $2 per thousand gallons in a 1996 resolution, but when a restructure of the water rates was done in 1999 that change was somehow left out of the new resolution and the district reverted to using overage costs instead.
"This is a really a policy problem," said Cox. "However I don't think it's fair to go back and change what has been done in terms of charges. I think we need to direct the staff to look at these discrepancies and report back to us at the next meeting.
Some of the board members were very concerned about the situation that Housekeeper had brought up concerning regular verses short term customers. Both Wheeler and Gonzales said that they were concerned about fairness and wanted to look at the issue.
"One of the things I want the board to know is that this discrepancy is only about water and not about sewer," said Richens. "There is no question about what Wellington owes us on sewer."
Housekeeper agreed with that statement.
The board voted to have the staff not only look at rates, but to also examine Wellington's debt and see where the district's figures on what is owed varies from Wellington's and then to work out the problem.