Lawrence keeps options open for increasing water, sewer and trash rates

More details emerged Tuesday night about possible water, sewer and trash rate increases at City Hall, although city commissioners weren’t quite ready to approve them.

In addition to paying an extra $1.04 per month for trash service, Lawrence residents may have to pay a new fee to have refrigerators and other large items picked up, and may be charged extra if they set out so much trash that it takes crews more than five minutes to collect it.

“I can’t believe everything we pick up for free,” Commissioner Aron Cromwell said after learning the city picks up refrigerators, washers and dryers, and even up to five tires per year from households free of charge. “I don’t go through that many tires a year. Our potholes aren’t that bad.”

The trash proposal has called for a 7.5 percent increase in rates to cover increased landfill costs and operating costs that include higher wages and provisions for higher fuel costs.

But the proposal also gives the director of public works the ability to establish a new bulk item fee to cover the cost to pick up large pieces of refuse that can’t be picked up with normal trash. It also would allow the city to charge an extra fee to any household that sets out large amounts of trash that take more than five minutes for a single crew member to process. The city has the ability to charge such a fee now, but the time limit is 10 minutes. How much the new fees may be haven’t yet been determined.

Water, sewer rates

More details also were presented about possible water and sewer rates. New rate tables showed that users of 4,000 gallons of water in a month would see their water and sewer bills increase by $1.95 per month to a total of $47.95. Users of 10,000 gallons of water per month would see their bill increase by $4.29 per month to $101.05.

City commissioners didn’t approve any of the rate increases Tuesday night, but left the door open for all of them. Commissioners unanimously set the maximum amount of revenue for the 2011 city budget at $169.9 million. That gives commissioners the flexibility to pass new rate ordinances later this month or in early August.

A majority of commissioners, though, said they want to find ways to reduce the proposed rate increases between now and then. Commissioners directed staff to look at ways to reduce diesel fuel expenditures for the trash division and to look for savings in the amount of chemicals and energy the utilities department uses to treat water.

City staff members have said they could eliminate the need for water and sewer rate increases in 2011, if commissioners are willing not to take on any major water and sewer capital improvements. Commissioners said they wanted more information about that option, as they expressed concern about the risks associated with not replacing several aging pieces of pipe and infrastructure.

Employee raises

Commissioners left unchanged a proposal to provide an average merit pool raise of 1.5 percent to city employees. Commissioner Lance Johnson did question why commissioners hadn’t given more thought to not giving raises this year.

“I’m still asking the question, why is that immune?” Johnson said.

City Manager David Corliss said he was recommending the increase in the merit pool because he believed city employees had worked hard to take on new responsibilities as the city’s work force has been reduced through attrition. He also said employees deserved the increase because they will see a 5 percent increase in out-of-pocket expenses for health insurance.

Other commissioners agreed, and said they could justify the increase because they figured out a way to do it without raising the mill levy.

Commissioners decided early on to keep the city’s property tax rate steady at 26.7 mills. County commissioners and Lawrence school board members both are contemplating mill levy increases of more than 5 mills.

“As we look across the countryside and see what other governments are facing, I pat all of you on the back,” Mayor Mike Amyx said to fellow commissioners. “We’re going to adopt a budget that doesn’t require a mill levy increase, and we’re still going to carry out all the great services that we provide. That is the mark of a pretty great city.”