UPDATE: Public hearing set on raising sewer connection fees, utility rates

Monday, July 21, 2014 | 10:39 p.m. CDT; updated 11:26 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2014

*CORRECTION: The date for the public hearing is Sept. 2.

COLUMBIA — City residents will have a chance Sept. 2* to comment on whether to increase sewer and stormwater utilities rates and sewer connection fees.

The Columbia City Council on Monday night set a public hearing on the proposal.

Under the proposed ordinance, most customers would pay $3.71 more a month, up to $11.01 from $7.30. 

The proposed rate increases would be phased in over five years and would help fund construction of sewer pipes and repair of existing sewer infrastructure.

Pipe diameter would continue to determine the base rate. Ninety-five percent of sewer utility customers in Columbia have a 5/8-inch pipe, according to a report presented to the council July 7 by Andrew Burnham of the consulting firm Burton & Associates.

Larger pipes would see increases of different scales, according to the proposal; the largest pipes, those from 6 to 12 inches in diameter, would see the costs decrease.

"Infrastructure needs to be built, and it needs to be repaired, like any major city," Mayor Bob McDavid said before the July 7 meeting. He said the fee proposal concerns how much is needed and how much the public is willing to pay.

Maintenance targets include replacing the 113-year-old Flat Branch mainline underneath downtown streets and preventing groundwater and rain from entering the sewer system.

The stormwater budget is about $1 million, McDavid said. "Public Works would like it at around $5 million a year," he said. "I’m not sure that’s doable."

Steven Sapp, public information specialist for the Public Works Department, acknowledged that increasing funding would not occur overnight. He said getting public support for sewer-related projects can be a "hard sell."

"Most of the time, it's out of sight and out of mind," Sapp said. He said people often pay little attention to sewers unless raw sewage is flooding into their basements.

Sapp said the construction on Scott Boulevard was an example of how disruptions related to sewer maintenance are often seen as more a public nuisance than a public service. He said that replacing the ancient Flat Branch trunk line could cause similar problems if sidewalks in front of downtown businesses were ripped up.

Columbia residents passed a $32.3 million sewer bond in November. A portion of the bond was to be spent on preventing inflow and infiltration — when storm water enters the sanitary sewer system — which can cause the sewers to overflow.

The price increases would, in part, pay off that bond, according to the proposal.

"We have projects going on right now with the intention of both rehabilitating existing sewer mains and at the same time reducing inflow and infiltration," said David Sorrell, sewer utility manager. "We've done studies in six different basins in town to identify sources of I&I."

The storm water utility for residential customers is based on the amount of livable space. Burnham said the study recommended including impervious area such as driveways, rooftops and porches as space that could be billed. Additional residential revenue would come from single-family residences with an impervious area of greater than 3,750 square feet, Burnham said.

Burnham noted that Columbia’s current Stormwater Utility policies are the same as they were in 1993, and the current sewer utility billing system hasn't changed since 2007. In addition to altering the monthly rate structure, he recommended increasing the price of new connections to Columbia's sewer system.

Fourth Ward Councilman Ian Thomas said he supported increasing connection fees. Thomas said that in the proposed system, the majority of costs to expand the capacity of the sewer system with new development would be covered by new connection charges as opposed to the current system in which monthly bills pay for 75 percent of new development costs.

"These are costs that we would not have to incur if Columbia were not a growing city," Thomas said.

The fee for the average residential customer would increase to $1,200 from $800 for a new sewer connection, according to the proposal. Burnham said during the July 7 meeting that the city could charge up to $2,460 for new sewer connection fees, an increase of more than 300 percent from the current rate. Thomas said he would support a fee increase up to $2,460.

Supervising editor is Seth Klamann.

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