December 19, 2012

Water, sewer rate cut considered for Columbia businesses

Water and sewer bills could be reduced Feb. 1 for nearly 18.000 businesses that are served by Columbia.

Water and sewer bills could be reduced Feb. 1 for nearly 18.000 businesses that are served by Columbia.

City Council members agreed Tuesday to look at rolling back some aspects of a rate hike that is under fire as excessive.

The effort is good news for commercial customers upset with increases that Mayor Steve Benjamin said “hit everybody like a ton of bricks.”

Interest in the reduction comes as city leaders work on a deal with federal environmental officials on a series of improvements to lessen sewer spills and reduce pollution that flows into area rivers from city sewers.

Monitoring compliance with such an agreement could cost as much as $7 million for seven years, city manager Steve Gantt told council members.

The rate cut plan taking shape is estimated to lower bills by $3.2 million – mainly for water – by scaling back charges related to facilities that serve stores, offices, churches, manufacturers and industry.

Some council members say the plan could be altered to make consumption a factor as well to benefit those who use little water.

Council members hope to settle on a final rate cut plan in mid-January.

That idea emerged after the Rev. Terry Roberts, pastor of Trinity Church on the east side of the city, told council members that his congregation is struggling with a water bill that has tripled to $1,000 monthly.

“It’s really a difficult burden to bear,” he said.

The higher bill is forcing his church to trim many of its ministries, he said.

Roberts’ church would save about $200 monthly under the changes suggested, assistant city manger Missy Gentry told council members.

It’s vital to give businesses “a little bit of relief,” Councilman Moe Baddourah said

But slashing rates even a bit could hinder plans to pay for most of an expected $500 million in water and sewer upgrades over the next five years, Councilman Cameron Runyan said.

It would reduce the maximum amount of bond debt allowed from $400 million to $335 million, forcing City Hall to dig into savings or make spending cuts, he warned.

That may not be a problem since lower construction cost are likely to allow many improvements to be built cheaper than expected, Gantt said.

Council members are looking at reducing the higher commercial rates approved last summer.

It was unclear then that package would produce “precipitous increases” for many commercial customers, Benjamin said.

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