Baldwin City Council to consider nearly 59% hike in water rates

Proposal also calls for annual adjustments

photo by: Elvyn Jones

Baldwin City Hall, 803 Eighth St.

There is agreement among Baldwin City Council members that the city needs to raise water rates, but how much is a matter of debate.

In August, the City Council discussed the need to pass on to water customers any cost increases the city of Lawrence charges Baldwin City for water and to adjust the rates annually to account for inflation. However, City Councilmen David Simmons and Tony Brown insisted further rate increases were needed, including an increase of 58.7% in the rate per 1,000 gallons.

The two councilmen said the city has been giving its water customers a bargain for years, and it is time to quit operating the water department in the red.

Simmons and Brown serve on the City Council’s public works and utilities subcommittee. Simmons said that at the council’s regular meeting Sept. 17, the subcommittee will present its recommendations, which will include:

• An annual Jan. 1 rate increase per 1,000 gallons of use that reflects inflation as measured by the consumer price index.

• Rate adjustments that reflect increases or decreases in the cost of untreated water Baldwin City purchases from the City of Lawrence, its sole supplier of water.

• A near doubling of the base residential water meter fee to $12 a month.

• An increase in water use rate from $10 per 1,000 gallons to $15.87.

If approved, the water rate increases would be the first for Baldwin City residents since 2008, Simmons said. That 11-year lack of action on rates necessitates the steep 58.7% hikes now proposed, Simmons said.

“These rate increases just cover our cost of doing business,” he said. “We’re not looking to make a profit. If we had approved annual inflation increases and made adjustments when Lawrence increased the price we pay for water, the proposed per 1,000 gallon and meter fees increase wouldn’t be needed.”

The proposed $15.87 per 1,000 gallons fee is what it costs the city to provide water to customers, meaning the city is currently losing about $6 for each 1,000 gallons of water customers use, Simmons said. To make up for that shortfall, the city has been spending down the water department’s reserve account from $1.6 million in 2014 to $480,000 at the start of 2019. That will no longer be an option when the reserve account is depleted this year, he said.

The increase in the base meter rate will help build up the reserve account so the water department can respond to emergencies, such as the recent failure at the pumping station north of Vinland and the need to install a backup generator to power pumps after the spring’s tornado south of Lawrence, he said.

Simmons said he expected pushback from residents and City Council members when the rate increases are discussed Sept. 17. When Simmons shared his proposal at the Aug. 20 council meeting, a number of residents expressed concern about the cost to seniors and low-income residents, as well as the higher cost of utility bills in Baldwin City compared to nearby communities.

At that same meeting, Councilman A.J. Stevens said the water department deficit was just part of the story, noting that no one was talking about reducing electrical rates to reflect the fact that the city’s electrical utility was making a profit.

Simmons countered that the electrical rates represented sound funding practices. The money the department is making over the cost of delivering power to customers is being placed in a reserve account that will help address a worrisome point in the city electrical distribution system. All electricity the city generates or gets from Westar Energy passes through a single substation, he said. Money is being put away in the reserve account to pay for the installation of substation redundancy to protect the community from long power outages, should the substation be damaged in a storm or other incident, he said.

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