A look at the top costs and projects driving the city’s proposal to increase utility rates 26% by 2025

photo by: Philip Heying/Journal-World File

The City of Lawrence Wastewater Treatment Facility at 1400 E. Eighth St. is pictured in this file photo from March 13, 2009.

Lawrence city leaders have a lot of factors to weigh as they prepare to determine a single number residents are bound to notice — the bolded number after “amount due” at the top of their utility bills.

Behind a city staff proposal to increase water and sewer rates by 26% over a three-year period are several multimillion-dollar projects, including new required pollution controls, a new public works and utilities campus, and added sewer capacity to accommodate population growth. To account for those projects — as well as the cost of staff, regular utility maintenance and inflation — the proposed water and sewer rate increases call for residents’ utility bills to increase to nearly $150 per month by 2025.

The Journal-World recently discussed several of the highest-dollar projects contributing to the water and sewer rate increases with utility administrators. Administrators said in part that some of the projects must be done to meet federal regulations regarding water and sewage treatment, and that maintenance-wise, if the city doesn’t address certain issues, it will cost residents more in the long run.

“We have a lot of regulatory drivers, but also just with asset management, if we don’t take care of things now it’s going to cost more later,” Municipal Services and Operations Assistant Director Melinda Harger said. “So that a lot of what we’re looking at is the fiscal responsibility of doing this work in the timeframe needed for lowest cost of ownership, but also meet all of our regulatory requirements.”

One of the projects being undertaken to meet new environmental regulations is the single most expensive water and sewer project on the city’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan. Others, though, such as the Field Operations Campus, are meant to centralize operations with the goal of improving the efficiency and quality of services. Apart from projects, the salaries of city utility staff are also paid by utility rates.

photo by: City of Lawrence

This City of Lawrence chart shows the annual financial impact on a utility customer using 4,000 gallons of water per month under the city’s recommended water/sewer rate increases.

The city’s three utility funds are enterprise funds, meaning the rates charged to residents for water and sewer, storm water and solid waste are set to cover the personnel, maintenance and other costs of operating the utility service. The city recently proposed increasing water and sewer rates by 8.75% in 2023, 10.5% in 2024, and 12% in 2025. If approved, the bill of a typical utility customer using 4,000 gallons of water a month would increase from $115 to $145, or a 26% increase over the three-year period.

If adopted, the proposed water and sewer rate increases would put Lawrence rates in the upper quarter of a rate-comparison recently presented to city commissioners. Specifically, Lawrence would have the third-highest rates of the 12 cities reviewed, surpassing communities such as Manhattan, Lee’s Summit, Topeka, Johnson County and Olathe. The cities with the highest water and sewer rates in the comparison were Kansas City, Mo., and Bonner Springs.

photo by: City of Lawrence

This City of Lawrence comparison shows the monthly water and sewer (wastewater) costs for 12 cities.

The following is a look at some of the most expensive projects on the city’s 2023-2027 CIP, determined by the total amount spent on the project during the five-year timeframe of the CIP, as well as other considerations as the Lawrence City Commission prepares to discuss its 2023 budget on Tuesday. Though the specific water and sewer rates, as well as those for solid waste and storm water, will not be adopted until the fall, the CIP and other budgetary aspects that drive the rates are adopted as part of the budget process.

Personnel and internal services, $18.5 million in 2023: The 2023 recommended budget calls for the water and sewer fund to collect about $64.3 million in charges for service and spend about $60 million on personnel, operating expenses, debt service, vehicles and equipment and other expenditures. Personnel services make up about $12.6 million of that amount, with another $5.9 million going toward “internal services.” Internal services are the water and sewer department’s share toward I.T., human resources and other such services shared citywide, and mostly consist of personnel costs, according to MSO General Manager Angela Buzard. Those numbers mean water and sewer personnel services make up 21% of the water and sewer fund’s expenses, with both personnel and internal services combined making up about 31%. The recommended budget also calls for $4.2 million for employee raises citywide in 2023, which is in addition to $5 million in increases this year and would conclude a multiyear plan to bring city wages to market-competitive rates.

Kansas River Wastewater Treatment Plant improvements and nutrient removal, $61.43 million over the five-year CIP: This project would install a new sewage treatment process in the Kansas River plant. The new process will better address phosphorus and nitrogen, which are nutrients present in human waste and other substances that damage the environment at high levels, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Harger said the plant does not have the ability to meet new limits on phosphorus and nitrogen enforced by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, and the project will retrofit the plant with a process known as biological nutrient removal. The city has two sewer treatment plants; the other one, the Wakarusa River plant, opened in 2018 and was built with the new nutrient removal process in place.

The first phase of the Field Operations Campus, $43.68 million over the five-year CIP (multiple funding sources): The city plans to build a new campus in eastern Lawrence, on part of the former Farmland Industries site, to house currently dispersed operations, including utility operations. The $43.68 million represents only the first phase of the multi-phase project, with the remainder currently unfunded in the next five years. The first phase includes a new building for the city’s Municipal Services and Operations Department — the result of a merger of the utilities and public works departments in 2018 — that will house streets, stormwater, traffic, wastewater collection, water distribution, and inspections. The first phase also calls for solid waste, the central maintenance garage and a fueling area. The Field Operations Campus would be funded by utility rates and property taxes, with $15.76 million from the water and sewer fund going toward the first phase. MSO Deputy Director Mike Lawless said currently operations are spread all over the city, including in the middle of neighborhoods as well in areas designated as floodways, and the campus will add efficiencies and improve working conditions.

Water Main Replacement/Relocation Program, $22.598 million over the five-year CIP: This ongoing program, which began in 2013, replaces and sometimes relocates city water mains. Lawless said the city has 560 miles of water mains, some of which date back to the 1920s and 1930s. He said the program is trying to catch the city up with deferred maintenance, rather than responding to water main leaks or breaks that ultimately cost more and can be more disruptive to service.

Southwest Lawrence Conveyance Corridor Improvements, $18 million over the five-year CIP: This project will upgrade the existing sewage conveyance system from the southwestern portion of Lawrence to the two sewer treatment plants on the east side of the city. Lawless said the improvements would address a bottleneck in the current system by upgrading a pump station, which would improve existing capacity and prepare for future needs. Harger said the project would help support anticipated growth in currently undeveloped areas west of Kansas Highway 10. In May, Lawrence city commissioners said they were ready for the city to expand beyond its longtime border along K-10.

Sanitary Sewer Rehab and Rapid Inflow and Infiltration Reduction, $16.08 million: This ongoing program, which began in 2013, fixes both public and private utility infrastructure that allows rainwater to enter into the city’s sewer system. The private portion address inflow and infiltration sources such as sump pumps and floor drains, while the public component addresses sources such as old clay piping and brick manholes. Trevor Flynn, MSO assistant director of environment, health, science and treatment operations, said that rainwater getting into the sewage system adds costs for the city both in terms of needing the capacity to handle inflows during heavy rain and the operational costs of unnecessarily treating that water once it reaches the sewer plants.

City staff presented the water and sewer rate proposal to the commission earlier this month. The proposal would fund all of the above projects and others included in the $408.2 million five-year CIP that was part of the recommended budget presented in July, as well as an additional 12 projects totaling about $40 million.

From the list of 12 projects, commissioners indicated they were not interested in funding phase two of a project to improve water taste and odor at the Clinton Water Treatment Plant that would have cost $8.15 million. They did express support for funding an $11.5 million project related to water pressure that would support development west of K-10, noting the growth anticipated with the new Panasonic battery plant planned for nearby De Soto. Commissioners indicated they wanted to look at potentially eliminating funding for some of the lower-priority CIP projects as a way to further offset rate increases.

In addition to reductions to planned capital projects or personnel costs, commissioners could also opt to use the $8.8 million in pandemic relief funding that remains unallocated to pay for qualifying projects. Commissioner Amber Sellers also said at the time the rate proposal was presented that she would like the city to consider expanding its utility discount program, which currently only serves people over 65 with very low income, and other commissioners agreed. As it stands, the 2023 recommended budget does not allocate additional dollars to that program, so that could be another topic for discussion at the upcoming budget hearing.

The Lawrence City Commission will hold its budget hearing at 5:45 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 6 E. Sixth St. The 2023 recommended budget, which includes all the capital improvement projects recommended for funding, is included in the commission’s agenda materials on the city’s website.


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