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Helper city's water rates remain undecided

Sun Advocate reporter

Questions on whether to raise water rates for Helper residents and by how much remain undecided.

The Helper City Council voted on June 1 to table the passage of a proposed resolution to raise rates and will reconsider the matter at its next meeting on June 15.

Mayor Mike Dalpiaz pointed to a handful of problems with the resolution that have been carried over from the previous version. A clause in the resolution states that fees "shall be subject to" a 5 percent increase.

City Attorney Gene Strate said the wording was unclear and he was unable to say whether the increase would automatically take place or if the council had to vote the increase into effect.

Dalpiaz explained that one problem with including a standard increase is that, in the event Helper's cost to deliver water goes up more than the stated amount, the city may be legally bound from raising rates to match the increased cost.

He gave an example that often occurs in electrical rate increases. Helper's costs are directly tied to the prices for electricity set by Utah Power.

When Utah Power raises rates, Helper passes those increases on to customers by raising rates in the city.

If similar increases had to be enacted in the water department, Helper could be limited to a five percent increase, even when costs escalate at 10 or 15 percent.

Strate suggested that the council remove the clause entirely from the proposed resolution. In so doing, the council could determine how often and by how much the city increased its rates.

However, Helper residents echoed opinions on June 1 expressed at two previous city council meetings, where the water rate matter was addressed.

Concerns of residents fell primarily into two categories.

First, residents expressed concern that raising the minimum rate would be hard on many of the older members of the community, many of whom are on fixed incomes.

For the smallest of water users, who use less than 1,000 gallons per month, the base rate was set at $12 plus an additional $1.50 for the first 1,000 gallons.

A monthly bill of $13.50 would increase under the proposed rate increase to $21.50.

When Councilmember John Jones presented the proposed rate increase, he said part of the reason for including 8,000 gallons for every user is to encourage users who don't water lawns to do so.

However, some residents at the meeting said they couldn't use that much water if they tried. Many consumers are businesses that only use water in bathrooms for employees only. Others live in small homes with little or no outside landscaping.

The smaller consumers would be hit with as much as a 59 percent increase on monthly water bills.

For smaller users like Mark Stuckenschneider, who owns Balance Rock Eatery and Pub, the current rate structure is less of a blow. Balance Rock uses about 30,000 gallons said Stuckenschneider. His business would still see a 10 percent increase in its water bill.

The business owner suggested that the city look at a block rate structure, where users who use larger quantities of water pay higher rates.

Such a system already exists in Helper's current structure.

All consumers who use less than 10,000 gallons pay $1.50 for every 1,000 gallons above 10,000.

Users like Stuckenschneider pay an additional 50 cents per thousand gallons for every 1,000 gallons above 10,000 gallons, an additional $1 for usage above 15,000, and an additional $1.50 for usage above 20,000.

By the time Balance Rock hits the business' estimated 30,000 gallons, the company is buying water at $3 for every 1,000 gallons.

While Stuckenschneider indicated that he was likely encouraging harsher increases for larger consumers like himself, he said that he knows such increases are part of the risk he takes as a business owner.

The proposed rate structures have a single block increase, at 100,000.

Consumers who use less than that pay $1 for every 1,000 gallons above the 8,000 included in the base rate. Helper residents who use more than 100,000 would pay an additional $1 for every 1,000 gallons above 100,000.

"Those who want to use a lot of water should pay for it," said Dalpiaz, echoing support for a rate structure that increases rates for large users without hitting the smaller users as hard.

The second concern expressed by residents was to make sure that there was some quantity of water allocated to each user along with their base rate.

The current rate structure makes no such provision. Every water users pays $12 just to have a meter and water service.

Water usage is extra.

As a result, the smallest water bill that a user can have, provided that they used even one gallon of water, is $13.50.

Jeremy Lamph suggested at a previous city council meeting that Helper officials look at a smaller allocation with a smaller base rate.

Lamph maintained that it would not be fair to increase the rates as much as Jones proposed in his structure.

However, the suggestion doesn't meet the goals set by Jones when he proposed the rate structure.

In his proposal, Jones set out to raise enough funds each year to pay for the basic needs of the water department. That includes the cost of operation, labor and payment of water bonds.

Jones said funds generated beyond the base rate would go toward improvements and repairs that have been overlooked in the city's water infrastructure.

Jones pointed out that he was willing to look at any numbers suggested by city residents.

"Until this thing is voted on, bring your figures in," said the councilmember.

Jones added that he was willing to do the math and figure how much revenue the city would receive as a result of the proposed figures.

In an unrelated matter, the council passed a resolution authorizing the city to bond for up to $892,000 in debt to the Utah Permanent Community Impact Board toward the city's new swimming pool.

The cost for the swimming pool project is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $1.4 million. The difference between the loan amount and the cost of construction is expected to come from grants, totaling approximately $500,000.

Councilmembers Dean Armstrong and Chuck Buchanan, both with voting records in favor of the pool and the associated debt, were absent from the meeting. That left Jones, Bob Farrell and Kirk Mascaro with the decision whether to pass the authorization of the bonds.

Mascaro has a record of voting against the debt for the pool and kept in line with that record, voting against the resolution.

With a 2-1 split in favor of the bond, the mayor, who only gets a vote on city matters when councilmembers are absent, cast a deciding vote in favor of the bonds.

The city has completed demolition of the old pool and surrounding structures.

Construction crews have not begun work on the new structure, though councilmembers have previously stated the goal of having the facility completed before July 4.

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