Bolton: Just how concerned is Columbia City Council about water, sewer fund?

Associate EditorMay 29, 2014 

Warren Bolton

TIM DOMINICK/TDOMINICK@THESTATE.

“I don’t see the will out there to accept that.… I don’t have the heart to even consider a rate increase.”

— Columbia City Councilman Sam Davis

“People are really scrutinizing every move that we make with that water and sewer money.”

— Columbia City Councilwoman Tameika Isaac Devine

COLUMBIA City Council members are so concerned about how consumers might respond to higher water and sewer rates that last week they rejected, without even taking a vote, a proposed 8 percent rate increase staff says is needed to make utilities upgrades, many of which are demanded by the federal government.

Yet the council hasn’t shunned a proposal to once again siphon millions away from the water and sewer account to pay for unrelated things included in the general fund budget. The public has consistently expressed concern about diverting that money away from the account when water and sewer lines are crumbling.

So it’s difficult to understand just how concerned council members are.

As one who lives in unincorporated Richland County and has to pay about double for city water, I don’t want to see rates rise any more than anyone else. If the city can avoid a rate increase, it should do so.

But let’s be real: Columbia has no choice but to raise rates. The city’s water and sewer lines are aged and dilapidated, especially those belonging to the sewer system; many pipes are half a century old or more. Not making the improvements to utilities that have been neglected too long only sets us up for more system failures — and higher bills — down the road.

And while water and sewer customers are hoping for the least burdensome rates possible, a rate increase will hardly surprise them.

City officials indicated a while back that we should expect rates to rise over a period of years to upgrade the system. And that was before a mandate from the federal government requiring sewer upgrades. The Environmental Protection Agency cited Columbia for large spills and is requiring improvements to halt the release of raw, untreated sewage into creeks and rivers; the federal agency fined the city and forced it to sign an agreement requiring it to make far more costly improvements to the sewer system than planned.

That means customers should expect successive rate increases over several years — perhaps longer. Where else is Columbia going to get more than $1 billion to make the improvements over the next decade or so? Much of that cost is for sewer improvements driven by the EPA demands. City officials estimate the cost of sewer upgrades at $750 million.

This isn’t simply about pleasing the EPA. It’s critical for Columbia to upgrade the system so it can provide quality, uninterrupted service to its customers. Additionally, it must be a quality system that can be sold as reliable to businesses and industry considering relocating to our community.

Having seen increases over the past couple years, most folks — though unhappy about it — were braced for another one.

Yet when City Manager Teresa Wilson recommended another increase last week, the council balked. None of the seven members embraced the plan; a number of them said they would not support it. Had the 7.92 percent increase proposed by Ms. Wilson and finance staff been approved, a typical customer who lives in Columbia would have paid $3.79 more per month. Residential customers who live outside the city’s limits would have paid $6.44 more monthly.

But customers shouldn’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet. The city has no choice but to respond to the federal government’s demand to improve the sewer system. An increase is coming. The question is when and how much.

While the council didn’t absolutely have to raise rates last week, at the very least it should have explained to the public exactly what’s going on. As it stands, we can only guess what message the council was trying to send. Was it just grandstanding to appear concerned? Is the intent to come back in a few weeks and institute smaller increases to ease the burden on customers? Will it ultimately approve the nearly 8 percent hike? Is it unwilling to address this issue altogether for fear of customer outrage?

The prudent and responsible thing for the council to do is at least outline for the public its plan.

Typically, the council would decide this issue along with its budget discussions for next fiscal year, which begins July 1. But Ms. Wilson said that isn’t possible now if the council is to stay on course with its plan for adopting a 2014-15 spending plan. Any water and sewer rate increases would have to be decided in the early days of the new fiscal year; the council would have to amend the budget to reflect the changes at that time.

Interestingly, while the council didn’t act on water and sewer rates, it more than likely will vote to continue transferring money from the utilities fund to bolster the general fund.

While it might not be the sole reason for the disrepair, the council’s practice of diverting millions from the utilities into the general fund has contributed to the problem. The more city officials transferred, the less they had to maintain and improve the decaying system. While rate increases might have been needed no matter what, the need wouldn’t be so great if City Council had used money transferred over the years to maintain and improve the system.

And now, under orders from the EPA to upgrade the sewer system, the council is expressing concern about raising rates.

Council members’ struggle over rates is a good thing if that translates into them making better decisions about increases and how they manage the water and sewer fund overall. It’s good that Mr. Davis is wrestling in his heart about raising rates and that Ms. Devine recognizes that people are scrutinizing every move made with water and sewer money.

But, in the end, will the council’s actions match its concern?

More importantly, will the public buy that the council is sincerely concerned about water and sewer rates when the seven-member body also stands poised yet again to strip the account used to maintain the utilities system of millions of dollars, for other purposes?

That’s a hard sell.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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