COLUMBIA, SC — Columbias water and sewer rates will get a major overhaul this spring, with most residential customers getting about a $2 per month increase on their $46 current average monthly bills, and some big water users getting a decrease.
The new rates are planned to go into effect May 1 and last at least 14 months. Overall, most of the citys 142,000 water and sewer customers will get about an 8 percent increase in their monthly bill.
Columbia City Council gave preliminary approval to the new rates Tuesday night. Final approval is scheduled for next Tuesday.
Five of six council members present voted for the changes. Council member Moe Baddourah voted no. Mayor Steve Benjamin, who supports the new rates, did not attend.
The average senior citizen who cant afford any increase in water and sewer is going to be affected adversely, Baddourah said.
But the five other council members present said the new rates were needed and stressed that for some big water customers, whose bills saw huge increases a year ago, the decreases would be welcome. Those big customers included sizeable businesses and large churches. But while they will see a large overall cut, those users still will have to pay the new 8 percent increase, which will apply to most everyone.
We have an obligation to provide that when you want to flush, you can flush, said council member Leona Plaugh. I dont see that we have an alternative.
City officials have said that for years, Columbia didnt spend money on needed annual upkeep of the sprawling system, which brings in more than $100 million a year and provides fresh drinking water and sewer service to the greater Columbia area. It pumps some 65 million gallons daily over 2,400 miles of water lines. Its sewer plant is rated to treat 60 million gallons a day.
In the past several years, consultants have told the city it has no choice but to raise rates and use the additional money to make badly needed repairs to the system. And the federal Environmental Protection Agency is poised to fine the city for not making repairs more quickly and raising rates to pay for those repairs. In any case, Columbias water rates will still be lower than other large Carolinas cities, such as Charleston and Charlotte, city officials said.
Before the vote, city director of utilities and engineering Joey Jaco said the citys drinking waters taste ranks in the top three S.C. cities and that improvements recently had been made to the citys major water pumps and at the wastewater plant.
Jacos department also is embarking on a major public relations initiative to explain to the public what it gets by paying its monthly bills. These efforts include mail outs with the monthly bills, tours of the water and sewer plant, public forums and a new website: COCWaterSewer.com.
The reduction in monthly bills will cost the city about $5 million yearly that would have gone to the general fund. Council has yet to devise a plan for recouping the shortfall.
The citys 30 largest customers, who use 10-inch lines, will see base rates slashed from $750 per month to $476 per month.