8% hike in Columbia water & sewer rates planned

cleblanc@thestate.comFebruary 19, 2013 

Columbia City Council examining how it allocates tax money raised from restaurants and bars.

— Columbia’s 142,000 water and sewer customers should brace themselves for an 8 percent hike in their monthly utility bills, and the increase is likely to come two months ahead of schedule.

City Council endorsed the idea Tuesday at the same time it agreed in principle to give about 15,200 of its larger customers – that’s 11 percent of the total customer base – relief from last summer’s increase in an access fee. That fee, called a base rate, drew howls of protest from businesses, churches and others who use more water than residential customers.

Council did not vote directly on the rate changes, though it unanimously endorsed the idea during a 90-minute work session.

The required votes to change rates are scheduled for March 19 and March 26. The public will get a chance to voice its views at the March 19 meeting.

The effective date of the changes is likely to be May 1, though council also discussed April 1 as an alternative start date. Normally, new rates take effect July 1, the beginning of the fiscal year.

The 7.96 percent increase had been on the drawing board since last year when council hired a consultant to change the way the city bills customers and to devise a five-year plan that would raise about $100 million in new revenue yearly. That additional money is to be spent on improvement in the water and sewer system, especially sewers that routinely overflow and increase pollution. Columbia soon will be is facing federally imposed, court-sanctioned improvements that are likely to commit the city to spending hundreds of millions of dollars.

Until Tuesday, council had not put a stamp of approval on another across-the-board rate increase.

But those 15,200 customers who have water lines that are from 1 inch to 10 inches in diameter will enjoy a reduction of about one-half on their monthly access fees. The larger the line, the bigger the break.

For example, customers with 11/2-inch lines will see their monthly fee drop from $30 to $15. But those with the largest lines will pay $375 monthly instead of the current $750.

Yet those benefits will be short-lived. The 8 percent rate increase is to kick in at the same time.

The reduction in the fee will cost Columbia $5.7 million yearly and council has yet to come up with a plan to recoup that money.

In other action: home for fire hydrant debated

City Council and artist Blue Sky engaged in a battle of wills Tuesday over a new location for his public art.

Council is considering placing it in Finlay Park. Blue Sky wants it overlooking the park along Laurel Street. “I’m the artist and I’m telling you where to put it,” an insistent Blue Sky said.

Council made no decisions.

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